Jonas Kaufmann review (Sydney Opera House)

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Standing ovations don’t come much more passionate than the 20-minute one (including three encores) that met German tenor Jonas Kaufmann at the end of the first of his three Australian concerts at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.

Hell, with tickets between $145 and $450, the audience mightn’t have been so warm if he hadn’t lived up to expectations and delivered on the hard-earned cash they’d shelled out. Or maybe they would have anyway? Isn’t that often how standing ovations work nowadays?

Kaufmann is, by all accounts, the “hottest tenor in the world”. He’s in high demand all around the world due to his versatility as a singer, his intuitive dramatic ability and, undoubtedly, his looks, which seem to get as much media attention as his voice does. In fact, when you go to Google “Jonas Kaufmann”, “Jonas Kaufmann shirtless” comes up as a suggested search.

Thankfully, dressed in tails, he can set just as many hearts racing, as he proved in a two-hour concert of largely Italian arias, but with some French and German thrown in for good measure (he can sing it all). From his first phrase on Recondita armonia from Tosca, the impossible warmth of his tone filled the concert hall, but the first real highlight came in La vita è inferno all’infelice from La Forza del Destino — after the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra set the scene with a masterful rendition of the overture — with Kaufmann bringing the dramatic sensibility to his singing that sets him apart. The thrills continued with Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci and his finale — Mamma, quell vino è generoso from Cavalleria Rusticana 

It’s really Kaufmann’s musicality and complete mastery of his instrument that makes him the “hottest tenor in the world”. He has a thrilling upper register, but it’s the consistency throughout his entire range and the unusual darkness of tone that makes him such a captivating singer. Those top notes don’t leap out at you in the middle of a phrase; they’re cushioned within it.

There’s really not any area in which he’s lacking, which makes him a very rare singer. He seems to live inside the material, and renders it intelligently and passionately. Both he and conductor Jochen Rieder understand the ins and outs of every piece of music they bring to life. The expression that Kaufmann sings with and the expression which Rieder draws from the orchestra is forceful, but never feels imposed upon the score.

Unfortunately, solo concerts of operatic music are usually (and necessarily, given how taxing these arias can be on the voice) broken up with musical interludes, which can serve to break the tension. But they also give the singer a moment to refocus and dive head-first into each character convincingly. It also gave the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra a fair few moments in the spotlight, and they were in particularly fine form, with the string players bringing plenty of vibrant, agile flourishes to the fore and the brass matching the warmth and darkness of Kaufmann’s voice. The orchestra brought plenty of drama and excitement to the Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah and concertmaster Laura Hamilton played a stunning solo in Meditation from Thaïs.

The tickets aren’t cheap, but if you want to hear how good good singing can be, you owe it to yourself to get along. This is an artist who is among the greatest and he’s at the peak of his vocal power.

Thank you, Opera Australia, for bringing Kaufmann here. I’m sure you’re already trying to get him back for an opera or two. Keep trying!

Jonas Kaufmann plays Melbourne 14 August (bookings 03 9685 3777) and Sydney 17 August (bookings 02 9318 8200).

Featured image by Ben Symons

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