by David Salazar
While Eva-Maria Westbroek and Zeljko Lucic remained at the center of the drama, a new star would be taking over the mantle of Dick Johnson / Ramirez – tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
In many ways, this was THE story of this production and even if the first three performances were major successes (read my review here), there was a certain bit of suspense regarding this fourth show.
Waiting For Kaufmann
Kaufmann last appeared at the Met in 2014 when he put on a historic tun of performances of Massenet’s “Werther.” Since then, his career with the company has centered less on his singing and more on his cancellations at the Met and questions about whether he would even show up. The Met Opera’s marketing in the days leading up to this performance seemed preoccupied with addressing this concern, repeatedly posting photos on social media showing the tenor doing everything from costume fittings to riding horses (we don’t often see the Met’s PR staff do this much until the production is on its feet and running).
And you could even feel a sense of anticipation in the air as the first Act of Puccini’s great masterpiece was underway. When he appeared in the background on horseback during Rance and Minnie’s scene together, he was almost a fleeting ghost. You still couldn’t believe he was back.
And when he finally made his entrance, there was a sense of awe and rapture at actually having him on stage. There was no effusive eruption of applause as many might have anticipated; it was almost as if everyone in the audience wanted to savor his every gesture, his every word, his ever sound.
And the tenor did not disappoint.
Man of the Hour
From his first entrance to his last exit alongside Westbroek, Kaufmann WAS Dick Johnson. He moved about with confident swagger of a cinematic cowboy, rubbing off insults with a vibrant smile. This made him more dangerous than acting like a stereotypical tough guy; it made him unpredictable and more complex. He carried himself with confidence and poise; he just looked dominant onstage.
Perhaps his strength of character and self-confidence manifested itself best in scenes with Westbroek, the two having undeniably physical chemistry (their vocal chemistry was perhaps a different matter altogether). The way he caressed her at times, or looked at her during “Quello que tacete,” and then later wrapped his arm around her as she showed him a book, was the display of a suave man with an ability for strength but also tenderness and romance. At one point he tries to teach her to dance, but when he realizes that his efforts are futile, he literally sweeping her off her feet and the sparks flew.
The first kiss and the build-up to it was full of tension and a sense of anticipation; the way the two looked at one another you almost felt it was going to happen. And when it didn’t there was a great sense of disappointment. How often do you find yourself so wrapped up in whether a couple will finally have their first kiss? That’s how strong their chemistry was. And when we finally know its coming, the two racing at one another, they paused and simply stared into one another’s eyes, the tension lingering evermore. This attention to detail on stage is what makes for riveting and immersive performance and there is no denying that many of the choices Kaufmann implemented that altered the stage direction were vital in enriching the experience.
Other small details such as his decision to stay near the door of Minnie’s cottage after being shot and refusing to come in or walking downstage at the end of Act one instead of out the door on stage left, also added to the emotion of the moment. Walking upstage creates more distance from Minnie and his sudden decision to run back to her and console her one last time is more effective then his walking a few steps toward a nearby door and then coming back; the former requires more effort and thus emphasizes the characters feelings for Minnie. It’s a small detail, but great artistry is built on this kind of dedication.
This was reflected in his singing, the tenor’s brilliant musicianship always on full display. The tenor oscillated between a powerful stentorian sound with a more gentle one, his glorious pianissimo coming into full effect throughout. “Quello che acete” was one such example. Looking straight into Westbroek’s eyes, the tenor built up the extended passage, climaxing “nuova” with all his strength before relaxing beautifully on “pace” with a subito piano, his voice melting into the note. You really felt that there was an arrival point in the phrase and it was the perfect embodiment of a suave romantic in complete control.
This entire first act duet retained a sense of gentle-manliness from the tenor; even his high notes were not overly forceful. It added a sense of restraint and dignity to Johnson.
His singing retained lightness and delicacy throughout the opening sections of the second act encounter with Minnie, his utterances of “Un bacio” gentle and pleading. It was only when he calls out for “Un bacio almeno!” that the tenor really threw all of his strength behind his voice. This continued in the arioso “Sono un dannato!” While there were a few abrasive notes in the upper register, the tenor did ultimately manage to infuse the passage with a strong build to its potent high B flat on “Vergogna,” his sound opulent and rich. If there is something about Kaufmann that one can always look forward to, it’s that his upper notes will always ring powerfully without sounding forced. He makes it sound easy.
The final Act was the clincher for the tenor, his rendition of “Ch’ella mi creda” polished and refined, the legato silky smooth with each phrase building on the next. Again, the climactic high B flats were powerful cries of despair. And the diminuendo on “Mio solo fior” was nothing if not sublime.
A Few Things Though
However, it wasn’t a perfect night. Besides the few flubs in “Sono un dannato,” the tenor seemed to confuse some of the text during the passage “Mi stringo a te, confuso” right at the start of the duet. He recovered in time however and whatever it was that he sang was beautifully executed from a vocal standpoint. Some of the lower lying notes in “Ch’ella mi creda” did tend to go a bit flat at times, but his elegant phrasing made you overlook those minor issues. At one point, he also seemed to jolt ahead of the orchestra, but this could hardly be seen as his fault, considering it very well might have been the first time he was singing with the ensemble as a whole.
When it came time to singing in duo with Westbroek, Kaufmann seemed a bit overpowered and not quite with her rhythmically. This was particularly noticeable during the sections at the end of the opera where Kaufmann and Westbroek never ended a phrase together, his voice often extending beyond hers. Again, this was likely the result of not having ample rehearsal time and is probably something that will improve from performance to performance. By the time they make it to the hotly anticipated Live in HD performance on Oct. 27, 2018, this will be nothing more than an afterthought.
Overall, Kaufmann delivered a fantastic performance. Those who have tickets to the final three performances will undoubtedly be thrilled.
The remainder of the performance was first-rate with the performers deepening and further strengthening what they had done thus far. This is my third performance in the run and it is safe to say that things have only gotten better since my review after the opening performance.