Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
I've seen Kaufmann once before in the wonderful production of Adriana Lecouvreur that the ROH did last season, though on that occasion, I felt he perhaps wasn't singing at his best. Of course I have listened to his albums, and on record he is certainly my favourite non specialist tenor of the last thirty years. When the mic is up close to catch his artistry, there is really nothing like the glorious beauty of the voice and the astonishing technique.
Whenever one knows a voice very well from recordings, it is always interesting to hear them in real life from across a hall. I was given seats last minute by the wonderfully generous @robmuz which were near the front of the back stalls, which is apparently an acoustic sweet spot in the hall. Though he wasn't loud, I could hear every note that was sung, even his most delicate pianissimos, somewhat of a Kaufmann speciality. The RFH is famously appalling for being able to hear singers however.
The first half was mostly Verismo rep: Cielo e mar from La Gioconda, Giulietta! son io from the Zandonai Romeo e Giulietta, Addio alla madre from Cavalleria Rusticana, with the flower song from Carmen representing the French repertoire. While on record he sings these all magnificently, I found these slightly disappointing here - somehow the radiant fullness of the voice didn't shine through to where I was sitting, and well sung though they were it was difficult to be too moved - you could feel that people were just waiting for the climactic high note, and the applause for these was proportional the how high and how long and how loud that note was. His Italian is perfect though, and his technique is unbelievable - the messa di voce and high pianissimos are second to none. Of course it didn't help that aside from the Bizet this is all schlocky second rate stuff. What also didn't help was that after every aria we'd get an entirely pointless and virtually unrelated orchestral intermezzo. Yes, sure he needs time to rest and get in character for the next aria, but there was such a flagrant sense of padding here, and the constant stopping and starting made it hard for anyone to get too involved (audience or performers).
I actually liked many of the orchestral numbers - mostly quite easily listening, but unfortunately always played so sloooooowly! The overture to I Vespri Siciliani is actually genuinely lovely, as is the Overture to Act 4 from La Wally (Catalani is my favourite of the post Verdi Italian opera composers, by far the most harmonically interesting and lush - reminds me often of Massenet in that regard). Both were here well played I thought, with the Royal Philharmonic strings playing wonderfully all evening. The brass often sounded dodgy however, especially in fast passages.
The second half was much better. After the orchestral Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns Samson (why?) and another piece of Verismo tat (Un dì all'azzuro spazio from Andrea Chenier by Giordano), very well sung of course, we got the prelude to Lohengrin Act 3, and finally the meat of the recital had arrived. Winterstürme from Die Walküre was truly superbly sung, the sound now completely matching the repertoire, and it just poured out of him. Then the celestially beautiful Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin and straight into the Gralserzählung from the same opera - such sensitivity to the text and for me the finest singing of the evening. In the spell binding central pianissimo he held us all rapt, not a sound from the entire audience which had been rather noisy and coughey until then - truly extraordinary. Would have been worth it just for that.
As so often, the encores (all four of them), were almost the best bit (and would have been by some margin had it not been for the Wagner). I have no idea why people are so keen to run away after these things! The four encores were L'anima ho stanca, Du bist die Welt für mich, Vesti la giubba and Ombra dì nube. Du bist die Welt für mich is so schmaltzy and just unbelievably gorgeous - the orchestra sounding fantastic, and Kaufmann singing so seductively it was hard not to just smile and laugh. And the final number, Ombra di nube by Refice, sung sotto voce throughout was also extremely special, for me the best italian singing of the evening.
He really is at the height of his powers now. Or can he go further? Apparently Otello, Siegfried and Tristan are coming in 5 years time. Can we get him in London to sing Lohengrin please? Soon?