“I get so absorbed in my roles, it’s like a drug,” says opera star Jonas Kaufmann. “I have to remember to keep control. I don’t want to end up really killing the soprano. I just want to make it look like it.”
He needn’t worry too much about unintentional homicide in his latest role. In Francesco Cilea’s 1902 opera “Adriana Lecouvreur,” the leading lady is murdered by the jealous mezzo, not the tenor. He just has to storm and sob during her long death scene.
The work hasn’t been performed at the Royal Opera in London since 1906, so, to overcome audience unfamiliarity, the company is pulling out the stops for its lavish new production. Silken-voiced glamorpuss Angela Gheorghiu takes the title role. Stage wizard David McVicar directs. And the male lead is the power-plus tenor du jour, Kaufmann.
Famed for his intelligent phrasing, impressive decibels and dark good looks, the 41-year-old Bavarian is currently one of opera’s biggest box-office draws. I met up with him after a rehearsal to ask about his latest role debut, keeping fit, and how he spends his fees.
Dressed in jeans and a natty close-fitting blue sweater, he bounces into the room full of energy. He loves his role, he says. “The tenor is usually the one who suffers in opera,” Kaufmann says. “Here, he behaves badly. He’s having two women at the same time, maybe more. It makes it so interesting to act.” An explosive laugh pops out of him. “It’s such fun to play a character like that.”
What’s the main challenge of his role? “It has the same challenges as all verismo opera,” says Kaufmann. “You squeeze as many emotions out of your soul as you can, and fill up your sound with those feelings, and it can happen sometimes that you go over the edge of being healthy. You have to give the impression, even to yourself, that you’re giving everything you have, and then keep some reserves so that you don’t hurt yourself. Karajan called it ‘controlled ecstasy.’ If you don’t keep control, it’s not going to work.”
His character Maurizio is loosely based on the real-life German military nobleman Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750). In the opera, his former flame the Princess of Bouillon is so jealous of his passion for Adriana, a famous (also real-life) actress, that she sends her rival a bunch of poisoned violets to sniff.
It has a deliciously over-the-top plot, three great arias for the tenor, and a well-loved number for the soprano. Why isn’t it done more often? “I’ve no idea,” says Kaufmann. “Perhaps because it demands a soprano with truly great presence in the title role. She has to have that ‘actress attitude,’ so that when she appears you immediately understand why she’s the focus of everyone’s attention. I couldn’t think of anyone better than Angela. It has to have a great tenor too, of course,” he adds with a deadpan nod.
Famous Adrianas have included the iron-lunged Magda Olivero and big-throated Renata Tebaldi. Is the more delicate Gheorghiu up to it? “Yes, she is. It’s so surprising that she has the capability for the big phrases as well as the tenderness and softness. She really gives everything.”
Is the opera’s unfamiliarity causing any problems? “A verismo opera like this needs plenty of flexibility in the tempi to live,” Kaufmann says. “I don’t know exactly how I’ll perform it each night. Despite that, the conductor Mark Elder has to keep the orchestra together. It has taken us a while to sort that out, and we’re almost there.”
Unlike several of his tenorial brethren, Kaufmann’s big voice comes out of a svelte figure. Does he feel pressure to stay trim? “No, I’ve never felt that,” he says. “I just think you have to feel comfortable with who you are.” Does he go to the gym? “Never. I like to be fit, so I do a few exercises, go swimming, and I love to walk. Even in the city, I can walk for hours. As for rehearsing and performing on stage, even that can be energetic.”
The bankable combination of talent, artistry and looks must have brought in some nice fees. Does he save or spend? “I spend, and I’ve been buying real estate,” Kaufmann says. I mention a few other singers like Marcelo Alvarez and Renee Fleming who also invest in property, and he nods vigorously. “Inflation is unlikely to go down, so it’s actually eating up my debt. It seems like quite a good system.”
Kaufmann is scheduled to sing Siegmund soon at the Metropolitan Opera, and with his particular vocal power, many are touting him as the next great Siegfried or Tristan. Is that where he wants to go? “I feel confident I will do those parts, though I want to wait at least another five years. You can’t just jump over the preparatory roles that lead to those parts, and start with the most challenging.”
Jonas Kaufmann is singing in “Adriana Lecouvreur” in repertory at the Royal Opera, London, through Dec. 10. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)