Operatic voices are a fickle natural resource. Sometimes there’s a glut of mezzo-sopranos, a sufficiency of good bassos, or a few more countertenors than the world can actually use. But for reasons that nobody can adequately explain, the drought of tenors — particularly Italian tenors — goes on and on. Sure, there are honey-voiced heroes who can sing the notes, correctly and with feeling, especially in an opera house of modest size. But few can command an ample stage, earn their follow spot, keep up with the diva, and galvanize an aria with a continuous current of energy that runs up and down the vocal range. Among the rarest of those creatures is the tenor who can carry off the punishingly beautiful title roles in Verdi’s Don Carlo. And if you’re looking for someone who can manage that with style, and also bench-press the weighty Wagner role of Siegmund, plus caress a delicate French aria, then you’re down to a pool of one. His name is Jonas Kaufmann.
The most excitingly versatile tenor on the stage today — and one of the best-looking, which never hurts — Kaufmann has a dark, meaty voice that you could easily mistake for a baritone’s, until it climbs into trumpet range. Verdi lovers have spent the years since Luciano Pavarotti’s death in 2007 pining for another tenor with a voice with a similar lightness and loft, and Kaufmann is not that man. Whether because of his vocal cords, his training, his sensibility, or his native tongue (German), he sings Italian with a foreign inflexion. In “Questo o quella,” from Rigoletto he sounds heavy and sedate, with none of the Duke’s brassy exuberance. The flourish at the end is labored, the high note strained, so that the character’s easy nonchalance feels like a lot of work.
But keep listening to The Verdi Album, and you come to a duet from Don Carlo, where the impetuous, freedom-loving, self-destructive prince springs to life. The grainy, oaken voice sits nicely in the opera’s orchestral palette, and Kaufmann is revealed as a singer of great musical sensibility and interpretive powers. Carlo and his friend Rodrigo (Franco Vassallo) join in robust vows of resistance, but the second time they pronounce the invocation “Dio, che nell’ alma infondere,” Kaufmann’s voice softens, acquiring vulnerability, tenderness, and doubt. By the time you get to the album’s final pair of tracks, both from Otello, you begin to be impatient for the day when he will finally sing the whole of that thrillingly rage-filled opera on the stage.
Kaufmann broke into stardom singing boyish and naïve characters like Alfredo in La Traviata, which was never a perfect fit. Now, in his early 40s, he is pushing into more muscular roles. But he hasn’t left delicacy behind and especially in French operas like Faust and Werther, his refinement serves him well. In “Pourquoi me réveiller,” he slips, frictionless, above the harp, then rides a swell of strings to a fragile pianissimo. This is the kind of passage that causes many tenors to cheat, belting where they should back off because they don’t trust their own delicacy. But just as Kaufmann can knock out a hard, high blast without making it seem like he’s lifting a pickup truck, he can also make a half-voiced croon sound easier than it is.
His power, vocal agility, and musical intelligence, his range of vocal colors and athletic bearing, not to mention his native language, all make him a first rate Wagnerian. The matte, brushed-bronze surface of his voice gives Siegmund in Die Walküre a deeply human vulnerability that mixes with the wild-child bluster. Siegmund is a flawed hero, and Kaufmann does not sing him perfectly. In the aria “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater,” (“My father promised me a sword”), in a studio recording, under perfect conditions and with all the editing capacities of digital technology, the sound edges into a ragged shout on the name “Wälse.” But even with its blemishes, Kaufmann’s singing remains exciting. And a moment later, when Siegmund looks to a distant glow and, in a light voice full of boyish wonder, asks “What is that brightly gleaming in the flickering light?” the phrase is enough to conjure a dawn-streaked clearing in the violent woods.