Star Tenors Kaufmann, Calleja Make Thrilling Pact With Devil

Jonas Kaufmann in "Faust" in New York. He sings the title character in Gounod's opera. Photographer: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via Bloomberg

When Faust, such a preferable personality to Santa, sings his goodbye to this planet, a vision of peace and plenty flows from him in rapturous melody.

In a gorgeous aria from Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele,” he imagines himself king of a world without boundaries.

It will speak to all who look yearningly at a new year as the tribulations of the past evaporate with the season’s fuzzy warmth.

This is one of my favorite operas, up there with “Andrea Chenier,” “La Gioconda” and “Adriana Lecouvreur.”

An epic work spanning heaven and earth, “Mefistofele” is far stranger, more searching and mystical than the cloyingly obvious “Faust” by Gounod, currently playing in a monotonous new production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Recent albums by two of the greatest tenors roaming the world these days, Jonas Kaufmann, 42, and Joseph Calleja, 33, reminded me of the glories of “Mefistofele.”

Kaufmann shows off his dark-hued voice on a Decca album called “Verismo Arias” (which refers loosely to the blood-and-guts repertoire of the late 19th century).

Calleja, whose brightly metallic tone is very different from Kaufmann’s, has released “The Maltese Tenor” (Decca), referring to his island home where pygmy elephants and knights once roamed. He also sings Faust’s two wistful arias, but his timbre imparts the coloration of a younger man.

La Cieca

“Mefistofele” was Boito’s only finished opera: he remains known for the librettos he wrote for Verdi, and, more importantly, as far as I’m concerned, the story for Ponchielli’s nonstop entertainment, “La Gioconda.”

With its grand parade of gesturing characters -- especially the blind old mom who almost gets burned at the stake -- “Gioconda” is the kind of opera that drives high-minded purists to foam at the mouth. It makes me happy to be alive.

Kaufmann (and his conductor, the galvanizing Antonio Pappano) capture the intensity of Enzo’s “Cielo e Mar,” with its dreamy beginning and surging end, as the boat captain imagines the arrival of his mistress.

It’s unusual that a voice so dark moves so smoothly and powerfully into the top register. And all the while Kaufmann’s intelligence shines through the music to illuminate the text.

Just listen to his delivery of Andrea Chenier’s denunciation of France’s peruked one-percenters at the cusp of the French Revolution. His voice rising in anger, Chenier describes his encounters with venal priests, pitiful beggars, uncaring nobles.

Calleja has the poetry for the tenor arias from “Tosca,” but also the vocal heft for the Verdi repertoire. Those thrilling high notes echo back to Franco Corelli, unsurprisingly, an idol.

‘Faust’ Workout

Unlike the dapper German, Calleja is on the chunky side. He’s about to get a workout, climbing up and down the laboratory stairs bookending the Met’s “Faust” set when he takes on the role for a few performances on Jan. 5. (Kaufmann sang in the premiere.)

As you may know by now, the staging by Des McAnuff moves the story of the medieval thumbsucker into a bomb laboratory.

Over the weekend, Wendy White, who was singing Martha, plunged eight feet from a platform and exited by ambulance. She is recuperating nicely, I hear.

Soon the singer-hating “Ring” production will return to the stage. Maybe Met executives should be required to climb all over the sets they commission before condemning their artists to do so.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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