Review of Jonas Kaufmann’s concert at the Municipal House


Like old “film” singers, only with better technique, one could say about Friday’s concert of Jonas Kaufmann in Prague. The world opera superstar presented an album of hits from the silver screen, The Sound of Movies. The 54-year-old German, considered by many to be the greatest living tenor, lived up to expectations. The audience rewarded him with several standing ovations and even applauded six encores.

The lyrical-dramatic tenor Kaufmann is one of the most sought-after living singers, appreciated above all for his brilliant technique, but also for his soulful acting. “Box office magnet”, as The New York Times titled him in 2014, sells out halls all over the world and has performed on all the most important opera stages – in Italy’s La Scala, New York’s Met or the Vienna State Opera.

He has been returning to Prague regularly since 2011, when his concert of veristic arias was an unprecedented success. This time, however, in the Municipal House, he presented a repertoire that is completely atypical for him – he chose well-known melodies from more than 80 years of cinematography, with which he pays tribute to great film composers such as Henry Mancini, John Williams or Ennio Morricone. The choice of repertoire, although it seems a bit unconventional, suits his vocal range well and even seems to suit him very well overall.

The concert seems to have been stylized in a slight “retro” touch. The singing performance was somewhat reminiscent of classically trained tenors from the first half of the 20th century, whose performance of pop hits still had an operatic technique, only they sang an order of magnitude better.

Kaufmann offers a perfect vocal interpretation without the “manners” of the time, precise intonation even in whistling, as well as balanced vocal registers even without operatic arpeggios. He can “sell” excellently balanced dynamic changes and transitions from forte to precise piano, which he demonstrated, for example, in Morricone’s E piú ti penso from the film Once Upon a Time in America. Perceived wind pianos, without unnecessary vibrato, are his strong point, which he uses in almost every composition.

Precise work

A condenser microphone can also afford a pop glissando or softer, less full tones. Although he mostly stays with the main one, he will also experiment with fistula or deeper tones that would not have a chance to be transmitted through the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in the Municipal House without a microphone. The latter has a balanced sound throughout the evening, compact even in rhythmic changes, and the conductor Jochen Rieder and the singer react perfectly to each other during the slowdown and at the end of the phrases. The conductor repeatedly lets himself be carried away, abandons precise gestures and rather “dances” to the music. It is not surprising that Kaufmann bows hand in hand with him several times, together they do really precise work.

Jonas Kaufmann’s film repertoire was brought to him by frequent visits to the cinema on the road. | Photo: Petr Dyrc/Nachtigall Artists

Jonas Kaufmann manages the transition between different vocal registers well, although less convincingly than in the classical repertoire, and the conversion from light tones to highs supported by “operatic” wind support is natural. It does not look out of place, on the contrary, it is absolutely desirable that the tones can be obtained on a dazzling color. Intepret thus successfully avoids the reproach of some of his colleagues, who sound too “operatic” in pop hits. He doesn’t even give up on precise articulation, and his great currency is the felt, emotional speech for which he is famous.

The repertoire includes What a Wonderful World or Singin’ in the Rain, in which comparisons with the original performers cannot be avoided. However, he remains authentic and does not try to imitate either Louis Armstrong or other singers. Moon River, already sung with ethereal tenderness by Audrey Hepburn’s breathy, untrained voice in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, transfers to a very delicate position, but does not resort to imitation, which often seems more like a caricature in others.

The song The Loveliest Night of the Year from the film Velký Caruso, to which the tenor is often compared, or Maria from the musical West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, which Czech listeners also know in the Czech version by Karel Gott and which was rewarded on Friday with great applause.

The grand finale in the form of the soundtrack from Gladiator gives Kaufmann the opportunity to show his voice in all positions. The audience erupts into an enthusiastic standing ovation. He then repeats them several times to the extent that the tenor adds six times with a triumphant gesture, including Strangers in the Night or A Time for Us, which are effective, but they do not exhaust him too much vocally.

For example, the song The Loveliest Night of the Year from the film The Great Caruso is very indicative of Kaufmann. Photo: ČTK | Video: Sony Classical

He goes to the cinema in his free time

The singer said that he fell in love with film music through the leading tenors of the Weimar era Joseph Schmidt and Richard Tauber, as well as through the sublime orchestrations of great film composers of the golden age, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner based on the legacy of opera greats Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini. And it emphasizes the considerable influence of opera on the beginnings of film music.

It was the Puccini roles that brought Kaufmann great success in recent years. Although he struggled with vocal problems last year, at the end of it he made a triumphant return to the stage as Kalaf in Turandot at the Vienna Opera. However, Prague listeners did not get to see his biggest “blockbuster”, Kalaf’s aria Nessun dorma with a held high h2 at the end. The singer stuck strictly to the film’s repertoire from start to finish, although he still performed some dazzling highs.

“For years I traveled a lot, often alone for weeks and months in foreign cities on the other side of the world. In addition to museums, it was the cinema that captured my imagination and gave me a chance to entertain myself when I was alone,” explained the tenor, what led him to try about a crossover into the pop world.

He is careful not to strain his voice. “Nothing is worth risking damage to your voice – and through it also trust in it,” he added years ago.

Trips by opera stars to less demanding repertoire seem to be more and more frequent in recent years, especially during times of vocal recovery. Subsequent tours are an opportunity for singers to stay in the limelight, to sing a concert for a standard fee with minimal vocal effort, and perhaps even attract an audience that does not normally attend opera.

The album received mixed reactions

Kaufmann was accompanied in Prague’s Municipal House by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jochen Rieder, with whom he recorded his last album. However, last fall, the recording received rather embarrassing reviews from world critics. For example, The Times newspaper wrote that it is far more reminiscent of a stadium concert than authentic film music.

The record, called The Sound of Movies, has more downright weak moments, such as the song Where Do I Begin, in which Kaufmann’s jumping between registers is unconvincing. In some heights, which should be his strong point, he presses too hard on the saw, sounds convulsive and is almost out of tune.

Jonas Kaufmann struggled with vocal problems last year.

Jonas Kaufmann struggled with vocal problems last year. | Photo: Petr Dyrc/Nachtigall Artists

Live this Friday, however, he was confident and dispelled any doubts about the suitability of the repertoire. Perhaps also thanks to his sex appeal, charisma and convincing performance, including the emotional experience he brings to his singing and with which he captivates the audience. He can’t avoid a slight forcing, or singing too loudly even at a concert, but he can “sell” the notes well and it doesn’t seem distracting in any way. The audience, on the other hand, is excited about the high notes and applauds them accordingly.

Although audiences expect a classical program from Kaufmann and other opera stars, and the crossover concerts are at least somewhat disappointing, even with regard to the price of the tickets, the popularity of film music is currently on the rise, and through it it is possible to bring listeners who are not usually fond of classical music to classical music and its they might not have discovered the magic otherwise.

What is certain, however, is that if you wanted to experience romance on the silver screen as the protagonist of a movie, you would definitely want the Czech National Symphony Orchestra to play and Jonas Kaufmann to sing.

Video: Jonas Kaufmann sings Once Upon a Time in America

In Prague, Jonas Kaufmann also sang Ennio Morricone's composition from the film Once Upon a Time in America called E piú ti penso. Photo: CTK

In Prague, Jonas Kaufmann also sang Ennio Morricone’s composition from the film Once Upon a Time in America called E piú ti penso. Photo: ČTK | Video: Sony Classical

The article is in Czech

Tags: Review Jonas Kaufmanns concert Municipal House


NEXT Specialists: Bye-bye handsome Mark Lamboro, we had you