All Jonas, All the Time

BY ELI JACOBSON / For a 30-year period that ended in 2007, the Metropolitan Opera was the house of the two tenors — Domingo and Pavarotti. The septuagenarian Domingo retains his place but has relinquished his old repertory. However, the next Pavarotti was needed long before the great Italian tenor left this earth.

The emergence of a new crop of exciting tenors has been manna from heaven for opera fans in New York and beyond. None is more strikingly versatile than the 42-year-old German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who stubbornly resists type-casting and redefines himself from role to role.

This season, Kaufmann has unveiled two new roles for New York audiences — the title role of Gounod’s “Faust” and as Maurizio in Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.” He also debuted as a recitalist at the Metropolitan Opera, where he will also repeat his successful Siegmund in “Die Walküre” this coming spring. This season, Kaufmann ranges from French opera to hot-blooded Italian verismo, heroic Wagner, and the intimacy of lieder. Domingo at his height never covered so much territory in one season.

Kaufmann’s voice is an intriguing, somewhat artificial construction — open-throated with a covered round tone. The resulting timbre is darkly baritonal, full of vibrancy if somewhat lacking in variety. Some of the lower notes can take on a burred, guttural quality that is unattractive.

However, with dexterity, Kaufmann can shift gears and float the tone in a lighter, headier placement like the Mozart tenor he used to be. The two contrasting vocal modes don’t seem to be part of the same voice. The brassy baritonal sound seems incongruous given his boyishly romantic appearance.

On October 30, just weeks after surgery to remove a node from his chest, Kaufmann presented his first New York recital at the Met, choosing a wide-ranging program including Liszt, Mahler, Duparc, and Strauss songs. It was an ambitious calling-card recital, displaying intellectual rigor but lacking emotional connection. The Liszt songs were variable in musical content, leaving an equivocal impression, and Kaufmann’s covered tone and unidiomatic diction took the fragile mystery out of the Duparc songs.

The Mahler “Rückert Lieder” are better suited to the deeper darker colors of a mezzo or baritone, while Kaufmann sounded like a triumphant Lohengrin in the anguished high climaxes of “Um Mitternacht.” The set of six Strauss lieder revealed the tenor in congenial territory, communicating freely through the material to the audience. As an encore, Kaufmann drove the audience wild with a lusty “Dein ist mein Ganzes Herz” from Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles.”

Helmut Deutsch was a sophisticated, alert accompanist.

Opera Orchestra of New York presented Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” in concert on November 8, reuniting the leads of the recent Covent Garden production — Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu. “Adriana” is the type of opera that singers love and critics hate. Audiences love it too, when the performers have the larger-than-life voices and personalities necessary to put the piece over.

The glamorous Gheorghiu and Kaufmann don’t own the opera by birthright like the Italian divas and divos of the last century but presented a sleekly elegant international simulacrum of the verismo style. Having cancelled three seasons of Met contracts, Gheorghiu seemed determined to prove that she is still a diva to contend with. Initially overly soubrettish in manner while fussing self-consciously with dynamics, Gheorghiu relaxed into an uncharacteristically generous, extroverted performance with surprising chesty declamation and loud high notes.

Kaufmann’s tone lacked Italian sunshine but showed a swaggering command of vocal effects, including stunning diminuendos.

Ambrogio Maestri’s warmly idiomatic Michonnet reminded me of the late Giuseppe Taddei. Anita Rachvelishvili tore into the Principessa’s music like a feral cat, but her chesty pomegranate tones too often fell below pitch in the upper range.

Maestro Alberto Veronesi conducted Cilea’s score like a flamboyant Technicolor movie soundtrack, which worked just fine. The evening proved a high-level performance of a guilty-pleasure opera.

Gounod’s “Faust” also has attracted its share of critical opprobrium. Goethe’s philosophy makes great literature but is not suitable for operatic adaptation. Gounod’s librettists wisely concentrated on Faust’s ill-fated tragic romance with the peasant maiden Marguerite.

The original “Faust” legend projected late medieval anxieties about emerging science onto the mythical alchemist and free-thinker Faust, who trades his soul for knowledge and power not available through religion. In the 20th century, new technology created military might that could destroy cities and eventually the earth itself.

Des McAnuff’s production — which originated at the English National Opera last year — resets the story in the 20th century as the last anguished fantasies of an aged nuclear scientist. Initially, the two-level scaffolding suggests a 1950s nuclear laboratory, but when Mephisto restores Faust’s youth we are transported back to the World War I period. The concept worked well for the Faust myth but seemed beside the point in Gounod’s reductive, romantic opera. And, unattractive design and misguided staging concepts left the audience cold.

Luckily, the Met fielded top-class musical forces. Kaufmann’s Faust had welcome reserves of power but could modulate for a softer lyrical approach, including a decent high C in his aria. René Pape’s Mephisto lacked Gallic elegance but was not short of wit — he remains a physical and vocal star presence.

Marina Poplavskaya’s Marguerite (replacing Gheorghiu) was again visually riveting and vocally uneven. The lean cool sound was apt for French opera. As the vocal line ascended and became more dramatic, Poplavskaya lost vocal control, falling into toneless yelps and shrieks.

Michèle Losier made a promising debut as Siebel. Russell Braun, despite good diction, seemed vocally shallow and dramatically recessive as Valentin.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s incisive conducting took any Victorian stodginess out of the score, painting a vivid, dramatic musical canvas. Once again the Met’s musical values surmounted a misguided production.

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