Forgive and forget. That was clearly the prevailing attitude among audience members for the tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night. Actually, Mr. Kaufmann’s many fans in New York have a right to be miffed, given his history of cancellations in recent years.
He was supposed to be singing the role of Mario Cavaradossi right now in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s “Tosca.” But he withdrew just weeks after the Met announced it. In 2016, he pulled out of the company’s production of “Manon Lescaut,” not to mention a couple of sold-out performances of “Carmen” in 2015 as well.
But, finally, showing up as scheduled on Saturday, he performed Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” with the probing pianist Helmut Deutsch. When Mr. Kaufmann appeared onstage (after a tension-inducing 15-minute delay), the audience broke into prolonged applause and bravos. Mr. Kaufmann apologized for starting late and then, in somewhat confusing comments, he explained why: The work (a cycle of 20 songs lasting some 60 minutes) would be performed without a break, he said, and he wanted to make sure everyone in the audience had arrived. (Officially, no latecomers were admitted.)
The performance started off strongly. In the opening song, “Das Wandern,” the cycle’s protagonist, a journeyman miller, sings of the joys of his lifestyle, wandering from town to town, taking work at a mill and moving on, just like the babbling waters of the brook. The qualities of Mr. Kaufmann’s voice that have made him the most sought-after tenor in opera were vividly present, especially the unusual combination of burnished, virile sound and slightly covered, dusky shadings. In the second song, “Wohin?” (“Whither?”), Mr. Kaufmann brought poignant earnestness to the questions that run through the miller’s thoughts as he looks to the gurgling brook for guidance: “Is this then my path?” “Why do I speak of babbling?”
Soon, however, some vocal glitches and moments of tightness started creeping into Mr. Kaufmann’s singing. They continued throughout this sometimes frustrating performance.
One moment he would take you to the core of a dramatically complex song, like “Der Neugierige,” when the miller, smitten by a maid at a mill he’s come upon, wonders if she returns his feelings. But a couple of times during this song, and in others, Mr. Kaufmann’s voice nearly broke. He reined in his sound tastefully to adapt his voice to lieder. But when he really let go and sang with operatic fervor, he sounded more secure.
Mr. Kaufmann performed the cycle, which leads to suicidal despair for the miller, with dramatic focus, insight and integrity. But the vocal glitches were too frequent to ignore. A couple of times, while singing, he yanked on his collar and coughed to clear his throat. Was he grappling with a cold?
The ovation was tremendous. Mr. Kaufmann sang four Schubert songs as encores and the audience would have been happy to stay for more.
This may have been an off night. But Mr. Kaufmann will be returning to sing Tristan, no less, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Act II of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at Carnegie Hall in April. Assuming he does not cancel.
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