Royal Opera HouseSchubert – Winterreise, D 911
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)
Was the Royal Opera House the ideal venue for a performance of Winterreise, whether by Jonas Kaufmann or anyone else? No, for all the reasons you might suspect – and probably a few more. If only this could have taken place at the Wigmore Hall instead, though then tickets would have been still more difficult to come by (unless, that is, the sensible approach had been adopted of scheduling multiple performances, and prohibiting anyone from attending more than one). In any case, I have been to Lieder recitals in other, less-than-ideal venues before. Hearing Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim perform this very work in the Berlin Philharmonie also proved a trial. And the principal reason then was the same as it was here: audience behaviour. Mobile telephones, strange rubbing noises, dropping of objects, you name it… But far and away the worst, as in Berlin, was the bronchial brigade. During songs, the terror was not too bad, though there were still a few wonderfully-timed displays; but the onslaught that greeted even the shortest of pauses, and which continued some way into Helmut Deutsch’s introduction to the next song and sometimes beyond, did its best to kill atmosphere, continuity, and most crucial, concentration alike. This was not the odd cough, unavoidable if irritating, this was rank selfishness from people who had no business setting foot anywhere near a performance. In Berlin, Quasthoff was so angered that he broke off part way through to plead – notably, in English – with the audience to desist. Such is hardly Kaufmann’s style, but he – and we – should never have had to endure what we did. It would be hoping for too much that the perpetrators would feel any sense of shame concerning their behaviour; we shall simply have to hope that the Almighty extends their stays in purgatory or elsewhere accordingly. And seriously, opera houses and concert halls should give thought to banning such sociopaths. Even if prices had been less high than on this occasion, or indeed admission had been free, performers and the rest of the audience alike deserve a modicum of consideration.
With that in mind, I shall have to limit myself to a few observations rather than offer a more detailed review. Insofar as it was possible as a listener to maintain concentration, one received an excellent sense of the songs as a cycle, as far more than the sum of their parts, from both Kaufmann and Deutsch. Unfortunately, that ‘insofar’ could not be entirely surmounted. To begin with, I wondered whether Kaufmann was not a little too withdrawn, inward-looking, especially for so large a venue, but not only did his performance draw one in, make one listen, it also revealed itself according to a longer-term plan. Thus the fine array of colourings at his disposal was not lavished upon ‘Gute Nacht’. Both performers, indeed, proved if not reticent, then cleverly expository. A journey, and a winter’s journey at that, had to be made; the world of weather-vane and frozen tears moved, but within limits, for it was but a starting-point. Likewise the colours of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, whilst different, whilst permitting a relative thaw, a relative hope, were never remotely garish; the journey had commenced, and everything was to be experienced upon its terms.
That said, when passions were truly roused, Kaufmann ensured that one knew it. It was striking to hear him sound quite so baritonal a tenor – irrespective, or almost so of the pitch. No wonder he makes so fine a Siegmund. Doubtless there would be some who would decry, or at least query, his performance as ‘operatic’, an all-too-easy evasion of very difficult questions. Lieder do not, any more than any other repertoire, exist in a vacuum; music, verse, drama, all manner of components and influences can and should combine to offer a musico-dramatic experience just as intense as that of a Wagner drama. (Indeed, the relationship between Schubert and Wagner is in need of far greater attention than anyone has yet accorded it.) Performers of all persuasions make choices; what matters is whether they convince. It would be absurd to hold against a performer his ability to maintain a vocal line. That does not mean in and of itself that he is not paying attention to the text. Kaufmann’s musicality shone through, liberated by sensitivity and technique alike; indeed, the directness of his verbal expression matched that of his musical expression. More to the point, there was rarely the slightest hint of disjuncture between the two. The ardent quality of Kaufmann’s hopes was all the more moving on account of his deeply considered performance – perhaps it was a little more akin to assumption of a role than to what many recital hall habitués would expect, but so what? – and its dynamically variegated quality. The quietest of ppp utterances could readily be heard, even given the venue and the audience; more importantly, it always had musico-dramatic warrant. This was a committed performance in the best of senses.
Moreover, Deutsch’s performance at the piano proved far more than a bedrock, though in many ways it certainly fulfilled that role too. His was not an overtly demonstrative account, drawing attention to pictorial aspects of the piano part and detracting, or at least distracting, from the overall journey. But it was perceptive nonetheless. The aethereal lightness to the opening of ‘Frühlingstraum’ was agonising, just as much for Deutsch’s attempt to smile through major-mode tears as for Kaufmann’s. The bipolar quality to the song was, moreover, beautifully, meaningfully captured, without forays into expressionist territory. (Not that I think there is anything wrong with the latter; such an approach can work very well, but it is not the only approach, and can often descend into mere caricature.) The Webern-intimations of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ drew their crystalline terror from Deutsch, again at least as much as from Kaufmann, for theirs was a true partnerships – whatever the Kaufmann ‘fans’ might have come for. This would have been a far less complete, far less glacial, experience without Deutsch.
Finally, ‘Der Leiermann’, where piano stasis could provide the perfect setting for the existential devastation of words and halting vocal line. Kaufmann finally offered something that few, if any, other singers could or would dare: a final crescendo, beautiful yes but agonisingly, dramatically so, reminiscent in the abstract perhaps of his Florestan and yet entirely different in context. This was a final raging against the dying of the light, but we knew it would dissipate into nothing; as indeed, equally finely judged, it did. And this was nothingness rather than nihilism: Schubert rather than Mahler. A cough, needless to say, immediately followed – but after that, even this audience had the grace to remain silent for a little while.