The kind of tenor who can successfully sing Wagner has to have big top notes, beefy low notes, and the blasting power of a foghorn. No wonder that that the German word ‘Heldentenor’ - which is applied to this kind of singer - translates as ‘hero tenor’. Good ones are as frequent as sightings of Holy Grail, and photogenic ones are even rarer. With his new disc, Wagner, Jonas Kaufmann becomes the most recent challenger to the heldentenor crown. Is he up to it?
It’s a natural step up for Kaufmann, who has been tackling heavier and weighter roles in recent years. His luscious voice is big, beefy and blasting - so no problems there. His stamina is amazingly impressive as well: he holds Siegmund’s anguished cry of ‘Wälse’ - it’s the name of Siegmund’s father - for what seems like an eternity. (In the score it’s written as a note with a pause over it, so the length is really only limited by the singer’s lung power.) The use of his mother tongue is naturally expressive and musical. He’s an intelligent performer, and has produced a clever recital: these Wagnerian excerpts include one from the rare early work Rienzi, and Kaufmann also includes Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, which are usually sung by a female voice. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking.
Kaufmann's luscious voice is big, beefy and blasting
The only question - and this is purely a matter of personal taste - is in the timbre of his top notes. Some buffs like their heldentenors to have an open ringing sound, like a silver trumpet. Kaufmann’s upper register is darker and covered, more like a saxophone. I find it thrilling - there’s even a touch of bedroom smoochiness in the quiet passage from Lohengrin - but slightly unusual too. Some heldenophiles may not be persuaded.
No questions over the conducting. Donald Runnicles, a Scot, is justly acclaimed for his Wagner interpretations, and he’s on top form with the Deutsche Oper orchestra here. The playing is polished but intense and dramatic too.
It’s so far so good for Kaufmann then, and his career as a heldentenor is looking solid. But will he go the final step, and tackle the hardest of all Wagner roles? Is he planning to sing Tristan? Fingers crossed.
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Donald Runnicles
Warwick Thompson is the opera critic for Metro newspaper, and writes on the performing arts for Bloomberg.com.