Deep Throat: Jonas Kaufmann Sings 1920s Operetta

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
31 August, 2014

When a PR-savvy superstar of the Jonas Kaufmann caliber issues a “cross-over“ album filled with operetta goodies, people take notice. So, whatever you might think of the 16 tracks on Du bist die Welt für mich – released by Sony on September 19 – you have to acknowledge that most of the opera world will see this as a positive highlight and a statement about the current (positive) state of operetta affairs. But is it really anything of the sort?

"Glee" star Matthew Morrison in his typical tie-and-vest outfit. (Photo: Fox/PR)

“Glee” star Matthew Morrison in his typical tie-and-vest outfit. (Photo: Fox/PR)

Let’s start with the two most striking features: any modern-day opera singer who can look like Glee’s Matthew Morrison with a seductive stubble on the cover of an operetta CD gets all the bonus points we can distribute. Because this “look” frees the genre visually from the stuffy image it generally has. Then there is the focus of the album on German language titles from operettas associated with Berlin rather than the usual Vienna waltz “fluff” most other tenors opt for. Because of this focus, some of the numbers selected by artistic advisor Thomas Voigt and Mr. Kaufmann are from the heyday of Berlin operetta, the 1920s and early 30s, i.e. the notorious jazz era.

As a consequence, you hear some really snappy arrangements and dance interludes that you will not find in any other modern-day operetta album by a star tenor.

Yes, there are the various Richard Tauber standards that no tenor can do without and should not have to do without, but the novelty is the inclusion of titles such as Abraham’s “Diwanpüppchen” from Die Blume von Hawaii or Benatzky’s “Es muss was Wunderbares sein” from Im weißen Rössl in the recently reconstructed original orchestrations. These reconstructions, by the team of Grimminger & Hagedorn, have so far not been commercially recorded, except in the context of radio broadcasts from Cologne (WDR).

This is what opera tenors singing operetta albums looked like one generation earlier: Placido Domingo's "Vienna, City of My Dreams" (EMI).

This is what opera tenors singing operetta albums looked like one generation earlier: Placido Domingo’s “Vienna, City of My Dreams” (EMI).

The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the direction of Jochen Rieder might not get the required “Schlager” style one-hundred percent right, but they have a more than competent go at it. It’s a delight to hear these evergreens in these versions. The same can be said about the Tonfilmoperetten hits by Werner Richard Heymann. His “Irgendwo auf der Welt,” from Ein blonder Traum, is presented here in a dance band arrangement by Andreas N. Tarkmann. Another joyfully bouncy moment.

To have such rhythms included gives the album a freshness usually missing for operatic “cross-over” albums. And it’s great to see that there has been a rethinking in the record industry as to how one can present operetta in the new millennium. It’s certainly a welcome alternative to, let’s say, Christian Thielemann’s Deutsche Grammophon discs from Dresden which are still stuck in a 1970s aesthetic of interpretation.

Given the orchestral joys and the smart song selection, it’s a bit of a shame that Jonas Kaufmann never quite sounds fully at ease in the syncopated world of Weimar Republic operetta. He sings well, don’t get me wrong, with a throaty sensuality that is more than fitting. Also, his diction is crisp and flawless. But he doesn’t play with the words in the self-ironic way the original stars of that repertoire did.

Max Hansen singing “Es muss was Wunderbares sein” is not just sentimental, it’s also very funny.

As is Marta Eggerth singing “Diwanpüppchen.” Kaufmann is never noticeably ironically inclined, he approaches this repertoire with the seriousness of a Lieder singer where more liberty, casualness and even coarseness would be called for.

Highlighting the seducitve and throaty side of operetta: PR shot for Jonas Kaufmann's "Du bist die Welt für mich". (Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical)

Highlighting the seducitve and throaty side of operetta: PR shot for Jonas Kaufmann’s “Du bist die Welt für mich”. (Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical)

When he moves onto the famous Tauber tunes – “Gern hab’ ich die Frau’n geküsst” and “Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett” – his mezza-voce singing is relaxed. You might even say Kaufmann, at times, sounds so relaxed he seems under-energized, where by comparison Tauber’s pianissimo renditions “burn” right through your ears. Because a laid-back rendition of “Gern hab’ ich die Frau’n geküsst” comes first on this album, you might get a wrong impression at the start of what will follow.

Because, rest assured, some true glories follow. For me, personally, the greatest track on the disc is the moment where Kaufmann lets loose and unleashes the Wagnerian beast within. His “Freunde, das Leben is lebenswert” from Lehár’s Giuditta is not only overwhelming, it even surpasses Tauber’s own version because of the sheer impetus of the singing. Assisted by an orchestra ready to rip, Kaufmann proves he would be an ideal Ottavio if ever someone were to decide to do the whole show as a concert version (and record it). To have him and Anna Netrebko or Diana Damrau in a complete Giuditta would be a wet dream. And isn’t operetta all about wet dreams?

Jonas Kaufmann in a retro "crooner" pose. (Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical)

Jonas Kaufmann in a retro “crooner” pose. (Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical)

The other pull-all-the-stops-out track on this album is “Das Lied vom Leben des Schrenk” from Künneke’s Die große Sünderin. It’s a show written for Helge Rosvaenge in Nazi times, and it presents a different aspect of Berlin operetta in the post-Weimar years. The Rosvaenge version of this tour de force number is probably familiar. Kaufmann aims for the same hyper-dramatic singing and delivers the goods – accompanied by a blasting horn section that makes you sit on the edge of your chair. Considering that Kaufmann generally sounds best on this album when he can turn up the drama – rather than whisper sweet seductions – it’s a shame the producers didn’t include the other glorious number from Große Sünderin, the duet “Immerzu singt mein Herz deinem Herzen zu,” originally sung and recorded by Rosvaenge and Tiana Lemnitz. To hear Kaufmann with this expansive declaration of love would have been a treat.

Instead, we get a much less expansive duet with Julia Kleiter, who teams up with Kaufmann for “Reich mir zum Abschied noch einmal die Hände” and the boisterous “Diwanpüppchen.” She is also his partner for the final track, Korngold’s “Glück das mir verblieb.” You might, rightly, wonder what Die tote Stadt is doing on this album. It’s an opera not particularly associated with Berlin, but with Tauber who was probably the most famous Paul of the 1920s. Kaufmann doesn’t copy Tauber’s interpretation, however, but Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s, which is fun to hear and probably not surprising when you have a (critical!) Schwarzkopf worshipper as your artistic advisor.

Program book of the 1932 Berlin production of "Student Prince" at the Großes Schauspielhaus.

Program book of the 1932 Berlin production of “Student Prince” at the Großes Schauspielhaus.

Considering that Korngold rewrote Eine Nacht in Venedig for Tauber, it’s sad that “Sei mir gegrüßt mein holdes Venezia” is not included. You could also argue that more Berlin operettas from the Nazi era would have been interesting, to balance the program out, for example a track from Nico Dostal’s Clivia which contains glorious tenor music. Also, the famous Berlin production of Romberg’s Student Prince at the Großes Schauspielhaus would have been a welcome addition, sung in German with the original Berlin translations, as a nod to American audiences.

But instead of lamenting what isn’t there, let’s enjoy what is. You get all the expected standards, including “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (of course) and “Grüß mir mein Wien,” you get a few more Tonfilmoperettenschlager such as “Frag nicht warum ich gehe” (Robert Stolz) and “Heute Nacht oder nie” (Mischa Spoliansky). But the all-and-all knock-out remains “Freunde das Leben ist lebenswert” – and the dance interlude from “Diwanpüppchen.”

Make love to the micorphone, the rule no. 1 of any great operetta recording artist: PR shot for Jonas Kaufmann's "Du bist die welt für mich." (Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical)

Make love to the micorphone, the rule no. 1 of any great operetta recording artist: PR shot for Jonas Kaufmann’s “Du bist die Welt für mich.” (Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical)

As is the case with many artists today, Mr. Kaufmann will go on tour with this program starting April 2015. Since he’s a dazzling stage animal, it will be interesting to see audiences swoon when he serenades them with these treasures. Some tracks on the disc are taken from a session recorded in the “Sendesaal Nalepastraße” (the former radio head quarters of Socialist Germany) in Berlin, in front of a live audience. If you buy the deluxe edition you get a bonus DVD which includes three video clips from this semi-public Berlin session. The entire concert will be issued on DVD later this year. As a bonus, that DVD will include a documentary about “Berlin in 1930;” it’ll show Kaufmann following the steps of Tauber, Schmidt, Kiepura, Stolz and Abraham. The documentary was made by none other than Thomas Voigt. Which means it will most likely be good.

On a special You-mean-the-world-website Sony set up for promotional purposes you can also hear and see Kaufmann during these recording sessions; in addition he talks about this repertoire and how he learned about it from his grandfather who grew up in Berlin. The interviews are available in English, too.

The syncopated operettas from Berlin and the 1920s were an international phenomenon; they demonstrate the cosmopolitan side of the German capital at the time, its worldliness and openness, its diversity and its across-border appeal.

This means audiences from outside of Berlin, and Germany, bought the records with these songs and went to see the films these songs come from, often in English language versions. In turn, it’s only fitting that Jonas Kaufmann will sing six tracks in English for the international release of You Mean the World to Me. As a bonus, there is a 17th track with “Je t’ai donné mon Coeur.” Such global thinking captures the true spirit of “Golden Age” operetta to perfection; it’s a way of global thinking lost after 1933. It does not apply to Künneke’s Große Sünderin anymore, the latest show on this album, which never travelled around the world like its predecessors. Sadly, German operetta later never recaptured that openness and global appeal again after World War 2. It’s good to know that Jonas Kaufmann wants to remind the world of it, in as many languages as possible.

To watch the trailer, click here and scroll down.

 

There are 6 comments

  1. Kurt Gänzl

    I had a sneak preview of this too. I don’t usually care for operatic voices in non-operatic music, just as I shudder at ‘actors who sing a bit’. Each, usually, to his own. But this is a jolly good stab at doing it and doing it well. Of course, Guiditta and the Sunderin are the most satisfying tracks. They’re right in Mr Kaufmann’s fach. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard them sung better. And he really tries to lighten off and be jolly in the livelier numbers. I liked the Abraham! But not all are so successful, sometimes (as in the amazingly poor opening track) he doesn’t sound relaxed, just bored and underpowered. Energyless. But let’s be grateful for the outstanding tracks. The artist has to be allowed to TRY something different. So, if I’d rather he had taken on, say, Rose von Stambul than Stolz, I guess that’s my problem.

  2. Kurt Gänzl

    PS: He HAS been stingy, don’t you think (or Sony has) to his soprano!

  3. Cedric Leclair

    I must say, it is a relief that he doesn’t pose with the Tauber monocle, as Piotr Beczala did, and he doesn’t wear that Domingo “I Love Vienna” outfit. Considering his aim to do Berlin operettas and film operettas, I wonder why Mr. Kaufmann sings “Gruess mir ein Wien” instead of the Hubert Marischka Schlager later composed for the film version, or the upbeat number from act 3. Both are less shmalzy.
    Considering his Wagnerian background, it would also be nice to have him in a recording of Oscar Straus “Die lustigen Nibelungen” as Siegfried. I guess we have to wait and see if any more operettas will follow with him, on Sony or anywhere else.

  4. Bernd

    die Brustwarzen unter dem schwarzen Hemd im Filmclip sind schon toll, trotz des Bauchansatzes, der das Götterbild ein bisschen stört.

  5. Nola Colman

    Thank you for this enlightening review of Jonas Kaufmann’s new recording.As operetta experts, your comments are especially valuable for a newcomer to operetta like myself. Like many longtime opera fans, I had been dismissive of operetta. However, Mr. Kaufmann’s description and obvious delight in this music is contagious. I will follow his lead and your suggestions to explore further. I’m grateful for your site as an information source. .

    Now, if only SONY and Amazon will deliver my orders on time!

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