It is many years since the Royal Opera House hosted a regular series of song recitals. Given the size of the venue, the singers always needed to be A-list celebrities and this one-off performance of Schubert’s Winterreise by Jonas Kaufmann, the leading German tenor of the day, would have fitted the bill perfectly.
Kaufmann sang against the backdrop of the set for Act 3 of La traviata. It was a shame that the stage had not been extended over the orchestra pit to enhance the singer’s presence, as it used to be, but the bleached white set, with its shuttered windows locking out a hostile world, set the scene well enough for Schubert’s lonely winter journey.
It is odd to think that this is the first time Kaufmann has sung anything in his native German at the Royal Opera House (all his operatic roles have been in Italian, with the exception of Carmen in French). One of the principle pleasures of this performance of Schubert’s towering song cycle was how well Kaufmann sings his own language – not so much in a poetic way, or obviously “interpreted”, like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the leading German song recitalist of the previous generation, but simply delivering whole sentences at a natural speed and with a clarity that meant almost every word could be understood.
It is hard to overstate the importance of that skill in a recitalist. Each poem in the cycle had shape and meaning, helped by Kaufmann’s ability to sustain phrases over a long span, where other singers would stop for a breath or two. He also used the words to create vivid responses – the traveller’s pain of seeing his image reflected in the stream, his bitterness towards a clear, bright day – though this was not a Winterreise of lacerating intensity, like some.
Kaufmann’s journey was a calm, measured, introspective one, ably supported by his regular travelling partner, accompanist Helmut Deutsch, who kept the music firmly within small-scale Schubertian boundaries. That meant that Kaufmann rarely let his Wagnerian tenor sing out fully, which may have disappointed some; and the emotions, as much as the voice, were kept contained. But for its straightforward, deeply considered communication this was a performance of real eloquence.