Jonas Kaufmann stands in line with the great Otellos

Jonas Kaufmann stands in line with the great Otellos


norman lebrecht

June 29, 2017

From his opening cry of ‘esultate!’ Jonas Kaufmann commands the Covent Garden stage as the Otello of our time.

In a role that has been owned in London by Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo for as far back as anyone can accurately remember, Kaufmann leaves no doubt of his authority. If the voice is a little light for the opening exultations, it broadens and deepens as madness sets in and Otello takes one inexorable step after another towards killing the one he loves.

He has no need to black up to represent the Moor. He is the ultimate outsider, respected and resented in equal measure by the haughty, scheming, libidinous Venetians. Kaufmann’s Otello, paranoid from the start, turns steadily psychotic in Keith Warner’s thoughtful production. He does not need Iago to arouse his suspicions; he never trusted these sex-crazed people anyway. The colours of his voice darken over three hours. Those who maintain that his is not a ‘natural’ Otello voice should listen to what he makes of what he’s got. Kaufmann is a great artist in his prime. In two or three years he will be an epic Otello.

Where Vickers was violent and Domingo pained and petulant, Kaufmann is a killing machine running idle. If he has no enemy to fight, he must turn upon his loved one, and himself. All Iago needs to do is flick the ignition. Knowing the inevitable outcome, we are gripped by the process. It is in the twists and turns of his sickened mind that we are sucked into the Otello that Kaufmann creates. By the final act, it is truly his own – a work of art for these febrile times, thrilling and moving as a great Otello must be.

Marco Vratogna’s Iago is sinuously well sung. He is a one-dimensional villain, a snake in Eden, insinuating his way into the human mind to achieve an evil purpose. He sings winningly, with subversive conviction.

Maria Agresta, acting excessively stupid as Desdemona, is redeemed by her fourth-act Willow Song and Ave Maria. A lighter voice might have been better suited to Kaufmann’s, but Agresta moves us inexorably to tears.

The set designs by Boris Kudlička are unintrusively apt, the lattice-work especially suited to the Mediterranean plot. His set is built to last: we shall still enjoy seeing it twenty years from now.

While the Covent Garden chorus under their new director William Spaulding were tremendous, I have reservations about the orchestra where the brass smudged two entries and the upper strings sound undernourished. Antonio Pappano over-conducted. Carlos Kleiber, whom I saw in this same opera and same place 30 years ago, looked as if he trusted his musicians. Pappano seemed too concerned to keep them going.

I chose to see the second performance of the run, removed from the high-fives hysteria of opening night. In the audience around me were knowledgeable men and women who had seen Covent Garden Otellos come and go. I heard no dissent from my conclusion that Jonas Kaufmann belongs now among the greats.

photo: Neil Libbert/Lebrecht Music&Arts



  • Ungeheuer says:

    Stands in line for his turn at an (elusive) great Otello?

  • stan says:

    it is to soon to say he is one of the great otello he has the voice but he has long way to go to in the boat with del monaco or the like. stan

  • Olassus says:

    “In two or three years he will be an epic Otello.”

    He is too smart. As with Manrico and Radamès and Siegmund, he will give one or two runs and then move on.

  • Gino says:

    “Marco Vratogna’s Iago is sinuously well sung.”

    This is simply unbelievable.

    In the performance that I attended in the cinema he was obnoxius. No line, no respect for the expressive markings. Plus the ugly sound he makes.

    Vratogna’s one of the worst baritones to trample present opera houses.

    • Nik says:

      I was also surprised to read this. I actually liked him as Iago on account of his expressive performance and charismatic stage presence, but vocally he is quite vulgar, barking and shouting his way through the role.

  • herrera says:

    I can’t wait for him to do it in Vienna or Salzburg with Muti conducting for the definitive recording.

    • Olassus says:

      Muti and Kaufmann have never worked together, afaik. Muti and Harteros ditto. It is the Germans’ loss, at least in Verdi. Kaufmann possibly doesn’t fully recognize good Verdian style (as his lavish praise of Pappano attests).

      Then again, Muti has Netrebko and a stable of Italian male singers to realize his projects. I think it was Domingo who shunted Netrebko in Muti’s direction a few years ago, a benefit to all sides.

    • fred says:

      the definitive recording have already been made : del monaco, tebaldi, von karajan, del monaco carteri serafin, del monaco tebaldi/de los angeles warren live from the met or la scala?

      • fred smith says:

        Such a pity Vickers didn’t do it with Gobbi and Tebaldi on disc… saw them all individually live.
        I think in terms of today’s options, we can talk of Otellini!

  • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

    ‘Antonio Pappano over-conducted. Carlos Kleiber, whom I saw in this same opera and same place 30 years ago, looked as if he trusted his musicians. Pappano seemed too concerned to keep them going.’

    I too heard CK conduct Otello at the ROH, though in 1990, not 1987. I cannot believe that Pappano could hold a candle to him.

  • Tim Walton says:

    I heard Domingo sing Otello 4 times at CG – 1980, 1983, 1987 & 1990 – 3 times under Kleiber and once under Colin Davis. I also heard Jon Vickers in 1977 & 1980 under Mehta and Davis. Kaufmann was excellent and I am sure, once he has settled into the role, will be fairly compared to Domingo and Vickers. As much as I love Pappano he will never be an equal to Kleiber.

  • Martain Smith says:

    For those who don’t read ParterreBox – here is the relevant section of an interesting analysis by “armerjaquino”:

    …..In addressing the components of that performance, I’m not going to tease you. I know what you want to hear. And you’ll be pleased to hear that yes, he is. This is the right time for this singer to take on this role, and it’s one I hope he revisits often in the rest of his career. Kaufmann belongs to that rare class of singer who can sing Otello without making it sound difficult.

    I was constantly struck by how much the part plays to his particular vocal strengths, a topic the singer himself and Antonio Pappano touched on during the interval feature, where they talked about how often singers have to fake the “baritonal” opening of “Gia nella dotte densa.” Kaufmann went on to do a spot-on impersonation of, well, those singers you’ve heard faking that bit, some of whom were very large and are now dead.

    Kaufmann’s voice encompasses all the colour you need from an Otello, and as usual in Italian opera he is at his most impressive when required to sing at full throttle. If an Otello needs to be able to pin you to the wall with power and also to caress a vocal line—which of course, he does—then Kaufmann provides everything one could want.

    And yet, and yet. The frustrations that seem to come as a package with this great singer are never far behind. The tendency to micromanage, to strive for effect, to arrest us with his artistry are all present in Kaufmann’s Otello and I found myself thinking, not for the first time, that someone needs to tell him that saying “look how delicate and refined I can be” is often as vulgar as bellowing and belting.

    Kaufmann the singer has always lacked the art that conceals art, and it is this which mars his dramatic portrayal of the character, too. Instant to instant, he is a strong actor. When he needs to be sad, we get “sad;” when he needs to be angry, we get “angry.” But he never loses himself in a character. Kaufmann’s Otello is the same person as his Cavaradossi, his Don Carlo, his Chenier, his Alvaro—a dashing, sensitive, intense man to whom Things Happen.

    Otello’s tragedy is that he’s manipulated into losing all control, while Kaufmann, as ever, whether wowing us with a gorgeous messa di voce or fixing us with the patented Jonas Thousand Yard Stare (you know the one) is all control, all the time.

    The conductor was Antonio Pappano, and I’m going to let you guess whether (a): he once more demonstrated that nobody currently before the public better understands Italian opera, or (b): see (a).

    Marco Vratogna, tonight’s Iago, will never in his entire career sing one line as well as any one line sung by Kaufmann. But in many ways his performance was weirdly more satisfying than the hugely more talented Kaufmann’s. Vratogna is fun. He’s having fun, and he’s letting us see that. There’s a contract being made between performer and spectator in a way that there never is with Kaufmann, who invites us to View His Art.

    • fred says:

      why the hell do you want to bring our attention to that ‘shit’ site [redacted:abuse]..and no, over here nobody reads that site and they shouldn’t be…