Jonas Kaufmann brought his baritonal, richly-nuanced, sensitively-deployed, sexily-wrapped tenor voice to the Royal Festival Hall on Monday. Alas, with a costermonger’s delicate touch, Raymond Gubbay hyped it up beyond endurance. His craving for a money-spinning formula marred what should have been a sensational concert.
The programme was an on-again-off-again affair, in that our hero was sent off after each number so that a loud, scrappy, under-rehearsed Royal Philharmonic could have a crack at an orchestral lollipop under the uninspiring baton of Jochen Rieder. This padded out Mr Gubbay’s commitments, one can only assume, meaning more bang for buck (a particularly apt phrase, given the rather insistent percussion and brass). It destroyed utterly any developing connection with the star performer, meaning every single song had to be built back up to something approaching atmosphere. Luckily, Kaufmann is deft when it comes to that kind of intensity. Lesser performers would have struggled to connect with the audience at all, I would think. The contrast with the four encores, obviously not separated by a bit of rum-te-tum, could not have been more marked. It was a wilful, disastrous way to construct a programme.
Speaking of ‘programme’, the £6 booklet deserves a special mention. It is a thing of remarkable amateurishness. No lyrics are provided to assist with understanding the works, rather little ‘notes’ which tell you about the overall work not the aria specifically, in that they go no way towards sketching the path of the aria so are useless for any understanding of the pieces at all. One of the pieces is unaccountably missing. There are typographical errors aplenty, including in titles (Giulietta/Giuletta, for example). There are howlers like referring to the Vorspiel to La Wally, or the indication that we are to ‘hear Siegmund and Sieglinde’s Act 1 duet ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond‘ in which they fall passionately in love’. And for the £6, all – yep, 100% – of the advertisements for live performances (which occupied the majority of the ad space) were for ‘Raymond Gubbay presents’ affairs, from ‘Messiah by Candlelight’ to Aïda at the Royal Albert Hall. An utter disgrace, bordering on a confidence trick played on the loyal audience of the Royal Festival Hall.
The numbers (those that weren’t orchestral filler) split broadly between verismo (Cielo e mar, Addio alla madre, and so forth) and Wagner, namely Winterstürme and the Lohengrin Gralserzählung. Verismo was definitely better served, demanding less in the way of luminosity and mellifluousness from the accompaniment. They also packed their punch more immediately, which overcame some of the cooling effect of stopping for a lollipop. La fleur que tu m’avais jetée was a notable highpoint in the first half of the concert: allowing a more lyrical blossoming of the sound than some of the more declamatory numbers. The second half was mostly Wagner and, whilst there was something magical about Kaufmann’s delicate start to the Grail Narration, building steadily to a majestic revelation of his identity, too often the accompaniment was unsteady and choppy, a flaw that significantly marred Winterstürme for me. The orchestral fillers were preludes from Lohengrin, La Gioconda’s Dance of the Hours, overture to I Vespri Siciliani, that sort of thing. Most were despatched noisily and inelegantly.
As already mentioned, the encores – a generous four – managed to capture some atmosphere that had been missing elsewhere. The high point – probably of the whole concert – was Vesti la giubba, a tumultuous swirl of rage and disappointment. Pleasant though it was, I could have lived without Richard Tauber’s Du bist die Welt für mich, which appeared to have about three choruses too many.
Kaufmann is a magnetic performer, one of the most intense and rewarding on the circuit today. This was a showcase of his talents that was enjoyable and frustrating by turns, with only flashes of what he can be if he is allowed the space. Of the many questions raised by this concert (which do include why Kaufmann felt the need to get into bed with Grubbay in the first place) the principle one has to be why an institution like the South Bank Centre feels the need to have Grubbay bringing an artist of Kaufmann’s stature into the RFH, corrupting the artistic experience in the first place. The ticket prices for the sell-out concert must mean that one of the main orchestras could have done it as part of their season. At the top end of the classical industry, surely there’s no need for Gubbay’s grubby mitts.