Jonas Kaufmann wakes up Houston: first review

Jonas Kaufmann wakes up Houston: first review


norman lebrecht

October 07, 2021

The tenor overcame his recent ailments to sing last night for Texas gold.

First review by slippedisc contributor Lawrence Wheeler.

Wednesday evening, acclaimed tenor Jonas Kaufmann performed with the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston, Texas. Conducted by Houston Grand Opera Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers, this was Kaufmann’s very first visit to Houston and is his only North American appearance this season with a full orchestra. Houston has a rich history of supporting the arts, with the financial capital to bring the “world’s best tenor” to town. Originally scheduled to appear in Houston a year ago, that engagement was canceled along with the rest of the HGO season. Tonight was the first HGO performance before a live audience in 602 days. It is also the first onstage performance by the HGO orchestra in three years.

Kaufmann was in fine form, even with his having a recent bout with a throat infection. The program had two parts– the first half featured various works by Italian composers, the second half works by Richard Wagner. Summers led five orchestral pieces interspersed between seven arias sung by Kaufmann. The concert began with the Overture from La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi. For this, conductor Summers was a bit stiff, displaying a mostly vertical beat with little variation between forte and pianissimo. As a result, much of the tragic pathos was lost, and small written phrasing inflections were not clear. The HGO orchestra played well, with the exception of small ensemble problems in the coda. For conductor and orchestra, the best was yet to come.

Kaufmann then entered the stage to sing a duo of arias, “Cielo e mar!” from La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli and “La vita é inferno…Oh! Tu che in seno agli angeli” from La Forza del Destino, featuring an extensive and musically played clarinet solo. Kaufmann displayed a beautifully powerful voice, neither in your face nor in the mask. He sang pianissimo notes with total control, then grew seamlessly to forte in a single breath. Following the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini (highlighted by a beautiful cello solo), Kaufmann sang “Un di all’azzurro spazio” from Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano. This was a first-half highpoint for sensitive emotional expression.

Summers’ conducting was fluid and expressive, coaxing finely shaped and tonally suave phrasing from the HGO orchestra. Kaufmann returned to sing “Mamma, quel vino è generoso” from Cavalleria Rusticana. Humorous at first (Mama, this wine is strong), it ends with a plea for Turiddu’s mother to give him one last kiss before a fight to the death: an emotional end to the first half of this momentous concert.

Switching gears and countries, the second half of the concert featured works by Richard Wagner. While the Italian works were largely emotional, expressive, and subjective, the German composer Wagner wrote noble, reverential, objective, and structured arias. In that contrast Kaufmann became a different singer. One half was not better than the other, it was simply remarkable that Kaufmann could morph so effectively and effortlessly. Therein lies a true artist. The emotional spectrum was more constrained and the vocal lines more linear, but the impact was no less great. Arias from Die Walküre, Parsifal, and Lohengrin were given interpretations of extraordinary power and refinement. Kaufmann gave special tone and expression to the German words for “dove”, “precious”, and “splendid”.

Between arias, Summers led two excerpts from Lohengrin, the Prelude from Act III and the Prelude from Act I. The Act III Prelude showed off the competent brass section, while the Act I Prelude exposed an excellent violin section. Throughout the evening, fine playing was given by solo oboe, clarinet, trumpet, violin, and cello. The first violin and cello sections were notable. A tense moment developed when Kaufmann and the low brass were not together for a few measures in “In fernem Land” from Lohengrin. Kaufman was unfazed while Summers brought things back in alignment. Considering the very short rehearsal time allotted, along with new and unfamiliar performance conditions, it is fairly remarkable more such problems didn’t surface. This is an opera orchestra any large city would be proud to call their own.

The third part of the concert was encores. Five had been prepared, but Kaufmann decided on only one at a time, depending on audience reaction and how he felt. The audience’s standing ovations requested/demanded more. Some were even calling out requests. The first encore was “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” from Die Walküre. Kaufmann continued his stellar singing of Wagner even more sensitively. Second encore was “E Lucevan Le Stelle” from Tosca. After the first phrase he audibly cleared his throat, but continued with singing of excruciating sensitivity and feeling. This one aria alone was worth the price of admission. The next encore was Träume (Dreams), from Wesendonck Lieder by Wagner.  Showing more meerschaum than granite, this dreamy aria allowed for more expression and less belt canto. Kaufmann sang it in one seamless line. Continuing to dole out encores with the expert timing of Wayne Newton’s Las Vegas show, Kaufmann’s fourth encore was “Ombra di Nube” by Lucinio Refice. Beginning with a beautiful cello solo, this gorgeous aria sounded as if it were written for Kaufmann. The fifth and final encore was “Mattinata” by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Providing a light-hearted digestif to the concert, it left the audience satisfied that the evening was indeed historic.

– Lawrence Wheeler




  • Lois Silverstein says:

    Thank you.

  • Sam says:

    A pleasure to read a review that actually points out specific moments for criticism and or praise.

  • TishaDoll says:

    Glad his health is back. Good program


    Golly, that was a generous programmme! Most tenors

    would have done about half that

  • Bloom says:

    Every night with Kaufmann is reported of being “historic”.The Verona concert was allegedly “historic”( but in the recording it sounded awful) , the Athens concert was “historic” too: the various videos reveal quite a mess of a concert. The Madrid “E lucevan” encores were catastrophically “historic” as well. Now if the Houston concert is also “historic” , I can only expect the worst.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      The Left doesn’t hold the monopoly on using language to propagandize. What’s good enough for the goose…

  • Mack Sawyer says:

    quel, not quell
    è generoso, not é generoso
    Wonnemond, not Wonnermond
    Good to have learned that Italian music is unstructured, and German music is unemotional and inexpressive.

  • Nina Staiger says:

    Wish he would come to Philadelphia or NYC!

  • Joel says:

    I wasn’t there. Historic

  • CRogers says:

    It is great to read this review. In fifty or a hundred years JK will probably be considered alongside the greats of any era with his unique voice and musicianship.

  • Lyn says:

    I wonder whether this concert in houston was recorded, or if we weren’t there, we lose out for life …

  • G. Chambers says:

    The author of this review should look up the meaning of “excruciating” . . .

  • Helden Sopran says:

    Funny that none of the nitpickers picked on Träume as having been written by a “young” Wagner. If he is referring to one of the Wesendonck, and a favorite of Kaufmann in other concerts, it is most definitely not from “young Wagner”, but a decidedly middle age Wagner, as we all know of course that the Wesendonck were studies for the soon to come Tristan und Isolde.

    • Larry W says:

      I heard Kaufmann say from the stage that Träume was written by a young Wagner. While you may wish to correct him, I will not.

      • Helden Sopran says:

        Well interesting comment from him, and you, since there is objective history that is verifiable. Wagner born in 1813, Wesendock written in 1858, published actually in 1862 if I remember correctly, therefore written at 45, and published at 49, so late forties. Even in this infantilized society of today late forties is not “young” and at that time it was entering old age, and people died in their sixties, and Wagner died at 72, rather young by today’s standards but not then! For the record Tristan und Isolde premiered in 1865 at 52. It was being written throughout all that time!!! a glorious meditation on tragic young love by a late middle age old man!

        • Larry W says:

          To be accurate, it was written in 1857 when Wagner was 44. Your comments are rather myopic in the context of this wonderful concert.

          • Helden Sopran says:

            You are ridiculously thin-skinned and prone to name calling everyone who questions your obsessive fanboy assertions! First I said nothing about the performance since I was nowhere near the theater. So whether it was wonderful or not is entirely besides the point!
            You claim some authority for your mistake by blaming it on him. How about being historically accurate when your write something public? leaving the artist’s skirts to hide in out of the discussion?

            To repeat the obvious 44 or 45 is decidedly middle age, then and now, so no you do not win this one!
            Last you are terribly misinformed, uncultured or at the very least very careless. The term belT canto as printed in your review above is just a laugh-fest!!!! I will say nothing more!

          • Larry W says:

            Belt canto was indeed meant to be humorous. You missed it. Thanks for your input.

          • Helden Sopran says:

            No I did not miss it. It was unusual in the sense that I have heard bel canto and can belto as the more standard assertions. And I object to that also when it comes to Wagner. To properly sing Wagner you need a voice that can reach the notes with ease and tie them into a grand Wagnerian line, and then effortlessly get the amplitude to ride over the orchestra, and that has nothing to do with “belting”, which is a term more associated with musical theater. Thus as a devout Wagnerian, I severely object to even as a joke associating the word belting with Wagnerian singing in general. Now we are speaking of gloriously subtle Lieder here, so even more uncalled for. But a joke is a joke so you win this one!

          • Larry W says:

            I had hoped you were done, as promised. “Young” has been removed. As for your other issues, I am not qualified to help. Now, give it a rest. A whole rest– with a fermata.

          • Norton says:

            Mr. Wheeler doesn’t have the time to do his research on this, but he does have plenty of time to stalk the comments thread and run down his readers with persnickety barbs when he doesn’t agree with something they say. I sense he has done more of his Wagner research into the character of Beckmesser, and a bit of Sixtus has rubbed off on him.

          • Norton says:

            Mr. Wheeler doesn’t have time to do his research on this, but he does seem to make time to stalk the comments and run down those who offer criticism or differing opinions with persnickety barbs. I suspect his Wagnerian research has centered on the character of Beckmesser, and that more than a bit of old Sixtus has rubbed off on him.

  • Norton says:

    If “Houston has a rich history of supporting the arts, with the financial capital to bring the “world’s best tenor” to town” why are there almost zero performances by the world’s great orchestras during their US tours, and a pathetic and paltry grab bag of crossover crap in the Society for performing arts” series, which used to throw a bone in the form of SOME decent artists once in a blue moon? So, I beg to differ.

    • Larry W says:

      This comment displays stunning ignorance. Houston has hosted the Chicago Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, among others. Chamber Music Houston brings seven major chamber music groups to Houston each year, which have included the Emerson, Guarneri, Dover, Escher, Miró, Jerusalem, Pavel Hass, Pacifica, American, Fauré, and Modigliani string quartets and the Beaux Arts Trio, Wu Han-Setzer-Finkel Trio and Vienna Piano Trio, among others. Houston supports a major symphony, opera, ballet, theater company, and art museum, plus numerous performing arts groups and organizations. Houston built the two concert hall Wortham Center and an opera house at both major universities.
      You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

      • Norton says:

        Yes, I am entitled to my opinion, and I don’t think you have call to resort to name calling. “Stunning ignorance”? That sounds like something that one who would write the knowledgable but rather pretentious review that you have written would say. Those orchestras you mention are over the course of how many years? Quite a few, and many years go by without a SINGLE one. SPA used to have SOME serious artists, even god forbid, a world class pianist once in a while. Over the years I’ve been in Houston I can count solo recitals by those top echelon pianists on my two hands, notwithstanding the valiant efforts over the years by the Houston International Piano Festival (certainly the budget has not been there to bring in the best of the best, despite a number of welcome and wonderful recitals over the years). I’m not at all denying Chamber Music Houston’s excellent series (it is wonderful indeed), but I think that for a city that’s up there in population with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston can’t even begin to hold a candle to what’s offered in those cities on a REGULAR basis. Bringing one sure fire hit opera star to town does not mitigate the general lack of important orchestras and guest artists on the world’s stage making a stop in Houston. I said nothing about the homegrown ensembles, the Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera (although that horrible Wagner Ring production? what a disaster. The talent involved on the musical side deserved something better than “gods on giant pogo sticks”). They are doing just fine, and kudos to them. My complaint is against those who should be stepping up to the plate to integrate Houston into the international concert circuit. It SHOULD be possible. Perhaps you are right that Houston has the resources, but there is only sporadic evidence that it is being used to create a viable international caliber concert scene. If I made a list of the greatest classical artists of recent times, and then a list of those who had NEVER appeared in Houston, it would be quite a large percentage of them, and a very large list. Is there another city of the size and population of Houston that one can say this about? I think Houston can do MUCH better. Perhaps you can influence some of those money folks? My efforts along those lines have led to dead ends.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The picture shows the awful ‘branding’ of classical music as chique entertainment for the happy few. And this is entirely against the nature of the art form.

  • Bobbie says:

    Heard Kaufman last night in NYC sorry to say in my opinion I was very disappointed

  • Bloom says:

    The concert is available online. The tenor ‘s voice is very damaged ( how can he sing in such a bad vocal shape?) , but there are a few glimmers of beauty which he manages to deliver thanks to his musicality and deep understanding of the text .