Verdi and Wagner are going everywhere in tandem this year. This celebrity concert was divided equally, half one, half the other, to mark their joint 200th anniversary in 2013 and few tenors could make such a success of that challenge as Jonas Kaufmann, opera’s star singer of the moment, can.
Then again, there have not been many German-speaking tenors who could sell out a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall, and at these prices. The last who attracted a comparable kind of adulation in London was the Austrian Richard Tauber in the 1930s, though he sang more popular music (Tauber’s grave in Brompton Cemetery is still decked with fresh flowers daily).
Appropriately for a noted Parsifal, Kaufmann has his own flower maidens, who presented him with bouquets at the end. There was not much to celebrate in the concert’s many orchestral numbers: the Philharmonia was on average form and Jochen Rieder, the conductor, went from sluggish Verdi to overly brass-heavy Wagner. Kaufmann, though, only had to open his mouth to remind everybody why they were there. His voice is not hard and steely, like many Wagnerian tenors, or over-bright, like some of the Americans and antipodeans. It has a resplendently warm sound, made for his native German opera, but still broodingly emotional enough for Verdi.
After warming up on Luisa Miller, he filled the Verdi first half with his trademark, dark, romanticism in Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlo. Most interesting of all was La forza del destino, which he is due to sing for the first time in Munich later this year: a true Italian tenor would shape the aria with far more tension in the line than Kaufmann does, but his relaxed, sombre pensiveness was very affecting in its own way.
The Wagner items were as glorious as expected. His chosen three extracts were not the obvious ones – why “Am stillen Herd” from Die Meistersinger rather than the Prize Song? – but nobody would complain when they were sung with such effortlessly burnished tone and depth of musicality. Two of the Wesendonck Lieder came as encores and then “Winterstürme” from Die Walküre. He was sounding tired by then, but it was gone 10pm and he had given us a generous programme.