Thursday, 9 February 2017

Beauty without the drama? Kaufmann sings Wagner at the Barbican

Jonas Kaufmann - © Julian Hargreaves / Sony Classical
Jonas Kaufmann - © Julian Hargreaves / Sony Classical
Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde prelude, Wesendonck Lieder, Die Walkure Act One; Jonas Kaufmann, Karita Mattila, Eric Halfvarson, London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 08 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Kaufmann provided some of the most beautiful Wagner singing I have heard in a long time, but the music-drama failed to catch fire

The second of Jonas Kaufmann's concerts as part of his Barbican Residency, was a much-anticipated evening of Wagner. Accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall on Wednesday 8 February 2017, Kaufmann sang Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and was then joined by Karita Mattila and Eric Halfvarson for Act One of Wagner's Die Walkure.

The evening started with a performance of the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Emerging from a thread of sound, Pappano drew a slowly unfolding line from the orchestra. Luxurious in terms of orchestra numbers, Pappano seemed to revel in this and used a very leisurely tempo indeed.

There is no reason why a man should not sing the Wesendonck Lieder, the texts do not really identify the singer. But it should be born in mind that Wagner wrote the songs with piano accompaniment and that the versions we know were orchestrated by Felix Mottl, under the express assumption that the singer would be a soprano with a voice capable of soaring over the orchestra. Kaufmann's voice baritone-tinged voice did not soar and there were moments when, lower in the register, the results were muddy and you could not help wishing someone had created a new orchestration specially.

Der Engel opened with Kaufmann singing intensely and quietly. His attention to the words and the detail of phrasing was miraculous, but the balance certainly favoured the orchestra. This was true of almost all the songs, Kaufmann stuck almost rigidly to his quietly intense, shaped line and allowed the orchestra to wash over him. Only in Schmerzen did we get something more demonstrative. Throughout the songs his control was superb and he sang daringly quietly, creating a sort of magic. Though I have to confess that I found his performance a little too undemonstrative, and that combined with the orchestral balance meant that the songs did not register as well as they should.

When we returned after the interval, we realised that performing Wagner operas in concert means unleashing the full power of a huge orchestra on stage, the extra wind being balanced by a large string section. And it was clear that Pappano seemed to revel in the sounds that he could create, and the prelude to Die Walkure was dramatically thrilling and Kaufmann's opening phrase as Siegmund held great promise. But for us, the promise was not quite fulfilled (though we were clearly in a minority and the audience response at the end was stupendous).

This was indeed some of the most beautiful and carefully crafted Wagner singing that I have ever heard. However, Kaufmann's voice lacks the upper ping which allows certain tenors to soar over the orchestra in this role. But his voice is what it is, and remains impressively controlled throughout the range so that his phrasing, and feel for words were fine indeed. But too often this was cast into shadow by the orchestra, not aided by Kaufmann's relatively undemonstrative delivery. This was very much a concert performance, with the singers using scores, with Kaufmann interacting very little with Karita Mattila. We very much heard Kaufmann singing Siegmund rather than the character of Siegmund.

By contrast Karita Mattila was at some pains to bring a sense of character to Sieglinde, and even when not singing was reacting in character. Her voice is not large enough to bring the sort of rich lyrical ease that proto-Brunnhilde's bring to the role, but she combined intelligence with a rawness of passion which was profoundly moving. Eric Halfvarson seemed to be in a different performance, as he gave Hunding a vibrancy and vividness of utterance which brought the drama to life.

Whilst Kaufmann's delivery of much of the opera was more demonstrative than the Wesendonck Lieder there was still a sense of inner control to his performance, and in Wintersturme he returned to the intense, quiet singing of the first half. Whilst to a certain extent startling this made a striking moment of it, and you wished that Pappano and the orchestra had followed him more. Only in the final rapturous duet did we sense a degree of letting go.

There were issues of balance in both the Wesendonck Lieder and Die Walkure, a result of putting the orchestra on stage and perhaps a reflection of the London Symphony Orchestra's lack of pit experience. The results were quite acceptable, but given the intelligence and sense of detail in Kaufmann's performances, it was a shame that we could not hear more detail.

As I have said, Kaufmann's performance in both Wagner pieces gave us some of the most beautiful and finely controlled Wagner singing that I have ever heard. There was a lieder singer's detail about the performance (you thought of Christian Gerhaher's miraculous Wolfram in Covent Garden's Tannhauser), unfortunately Pappano and the orchestra did not entirely go where Kaufmann seemed to be leading them and the result was a performance which seemed to be more about vocal beauty and about creating music drama.

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