Jonas Kaufmann’s summer Winterreise

Schubert’s Winterreise is a journey further and further into the narrator’s own psyche. As he wanders he flees the diegetic noises surrounding him–the barking dogs, the posthorn, the cracking ice–and yet the icy cold articulates his inner self, even in its self-deception…

Aw shit, if you care about that you probably know about it already. You just want to hear about how Jonas Kaufmann’s big comeback recital went, don’t you?

Festspiele-Liederabend: Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/18/2012. Schubert, Winterreise.

Kaufmann is returning after an unplanned vacation of three months. He’s near the top of today’s very short list of major operatic stars, and in my mind on an even shorter list of major stars who are, at least most of the time, also genuinely interesting and creative artists. So his welfare seems a matter of public good, besides I tend to like him a lot and was anxious to hear how it was going.

Nothing seems amiss, this recital was beautifully done. After a bit, that is. Kaufmann got off to an unsteady start, and when he began sounding rather growly I wondered if he had spent the three months off becoming a baritone. There were some awkward gear shifts between catatonia and anguish in “Gute Nacht” and some slightly off timing in “Der Wetterfahne.” Helmut Deutsch was, as always, the pianist, and I find it hard to write much about him. He has excellent taste and does some lovely harmonic things and that river was very nice, but he never deigns to take the spotlight.

It was around “Der Lindenbaum” that Kaufmann found his stride, so to speak, durch Eis und Schnee. He sang much of the time around a lovely mf/mp area with creamy and smooth tone, which became darker and gnarlier only at higher volumes and pitches. This was his best dramatic effect–to unleash the Heldentenor when you don’t expect it (such as in the middle of “Wasserflut,” and not in the obvious forte moments). He can also do a remarkable gradual crescendo over the course of a song, notably in “Auf den Flusse” “Die Krähe.”

It was, for the most part, a simple and straightforward interpretation, operatic in the sense that he is more interested in developing a character than a poetic text. But he was notably lacking in gratuitous sentiment and declining to milk many of the obvious moments for excessive pathos. “Irrlicht” was navigated at a very slow, flexible tempo but still somehow maintained a rhythmic pulse, and he let the text do the work at the end of “Einsamkeit” (“war ich so elend nicht”), not overacting vocally. If anything, this performance could have done with more intensity and drama behind the lovely singing (I wished the ending of “Mut!” had been bigger), but there’s a lot to be said for just telling the story in an emotionally honest and compelling way, and the occasional unexpected turn in the phrasing kept us from becoming complacent. The ending was genuinely sad, with a subtle decrescendo into quiet madness through “Die Nebensonnen” and “Der Leiermann,” the latter ending with a creepy crescendo at the very end.

This concert was obviously a big deal for Kaufmann, who at the curtain call seemed more overcome than I have ever seen him. In accordance with Winterreise tradition, there was no encore (because what can you sing after Winterreise?).

As a side note, I wonder who in the Bay Staats was responsible for choosing the stage’s decoration, a lone flower arrangement hanging out stage left, and why they chose sunflowers. As flowers go they are kind of an inspired choice (autumnal, the opposite of the bunten Blumen of May), but still, a random touch.

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  1. Unleash the Heldentenor-I've seen the Avengers too many times; I immediately pictured the operatic version of unleashing the Hulk. >_<

    I heard that he cried during the curtain calls. Did there seem to be any reason, or was he just overcome in general?

  2. Sounds wonderful. And if JK was overcome then hardly surprising – probably a combination of the subject matter, relief and being in front of his home crowd. Great to hear that he's on form.

  3. He did seem a little weepy at the end–not having asked him why myself (it would be such a good conversation opener, though), I'd go with Siggy's theory.