Jonas Kaufmann Winterreise - Royal Opera House, 6 April 2014
While opera squeezes itself into pubs, clubs and underground bunkers, could piano recitals take over its abandoned theatres? Jonas Kaufmann's sold out the Royal Opera House instantly. Some may have come for the Schubert; I suspect most were after the man.
The darkest song cycle in all of liederdom sits uneasily with the velvet and glitz of the ROH, even with the austere Act 3 set from La traviata drafted in as a backdrop.
But with a new album to promote and 3,000 eager fans who'd swoon if he tackled the telephone directory, it was the obvious choice. Having disappointed both opera buffs and lieder lovers last year when he pulled out of ROH and Wigmore dates, it could also be seen as a compromise offering.
Despite a punishing Reise of his own, which sees him in a different city (if not country) every other night, Kaufmann sounded in terrific health. The sheer beauty of his timbre is unquestionable and his range of vocal colours remarkable.
With only a piano to compete against, we heard sounds too light to dare normally in an opera house - plus the odd unidiomatic sob that we already have. You might call Kaufmann's approach 'operatic' - in the melodic not the melodramatic sense, meaning rooted in musical line rather than text. None of the declamatory tones considered permissible in Lieder passed Kaufmann's lips. There were simply no ugly sounds.
There was no place for the oversized gesture either. This was a cool and self-contained performance, an armchair journey free of the burgeoning desperation, anxiety and even insanity that many singers bring to the cycle. Kaufmann's reflective, inward style treated the text as metaphor for a memory, not lived experience. While many singers might be tempted to scale up the story in a big theatre, Kaufmann took the opposite approach, drawing the audience in instead of reaching out to them.
If the final result had a monochrome tint, that was largely down to Helmut Deutsch's self-effacing and unvaried accompaniment. Whether this was an attempt to link the songs stylistically, or simply his way of dodging Kaufmann's spotlight it is hard to say. I was however impressed by his cunning page turning trick; by having two copies of the score, one turned over to the next page, he made sure he never missed a note.
The marathon was greeted by prolonged silence, in marked contrast to the stentorian coughing and throat-clearing that had peppered every pause in the previous 80 minutes. No encore, of course,
And the applause, with thanks to Kyoko ( and for the better photos above, too):