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Jonas Kaufmann's intimate and sublime singing

Jonas Kaufmann, accompanied by pianist Helmut Deutsch, sang 11 arias and one Italian song in the ornate 18th-century library of Polling Abbey near Munich where Kaufmann lives.

New York

AFTER the coronavirus pandemic forced concert halls and opera houses to close this spring, online performances proliferated. The Metropolitan Opera began streaming nightly operas from its extensive video archive, and in April it presented an At-Home Gala, broadcast over smartphones from the homes of singers around the world.

The classical music and opera offerings this spring and summer have mostly been free - and tremendously gratifying. But as cancellations continue into the autumn, and beyond, organisations have worried that listeners will start taking free performances for granted.

So the Met is testing whether audiences will pay for digital content with a series of recitals by some of its biggest stars; the first, last Saturday, featured tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Tickets are US$20, roughly the price of the Met's Live in HD movie-theatre transmissions (and the performances remain available on demand for 12 days).

The endeavour might bring in some much-needed revenue for a company that is losing up to US$100 million in sales during its theatre's closure, which will last at least until the end of the year.

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But, perhaps even more important, the recitals are intended to stimulate donations. "Fundraising ebbs and flows according to activities and events", Peter Gelb, the company's general manager, said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

The Met's At-Home Gala used charmingly makeshift technology. Kaufmann's concert, by comparison, offered professional camera work, including many - maybe too many - dramatic close-ups, and high-quality sound. (At least, after a glitch when the audio briefly dropped out just as Kaufmann began singing the aria Recondita Armonia from Puccini's Tosca.)

The programme, with pianist Helmut Deutsch, consisted of 11 arias and one Italian song performed (without a live audience) in the ornate 18th-century library of Polling Abbey near Munich, where Kaufmann lives. With a couple of exceptions, this was a greatest-hits collection of numbers from Tosca, Turandot, Roméo et Juliette, La Gioconda and more. Still, Kaufmann has been perhaps the Met's most elusive star, and it was exciting to hear him again, even over a livestream.

The concert had a feeling of unusual intimacy, like a song recital; Kaufmann and Deutsch, an elegant pianist, have been frequent partners in recordings and performances of lieder. The familiar arias felt like they had been considered anew, and Kaufmann's singing was splendid - his voice vibrant with dusky colours and warmth, his phrasing impassioned.

The high B-flat - beautifully subdued

When called for, he drew on smouldering power, as in his heroic account of an aria from Giordano's Andrea Chénier.

Yet I've seldom heard the Flower Song from Bizet's Carmen sung with such tenderness and vulnerability. Kaufmann did the climactic phrase with a softness rare among tenors, following the pianissimo dynamic Bizet wrote in the score. The high B-flat was beautifully subdued. To give Kaufmann some breaks last Saturday, excerpts from his Met Live in HD broadcasts were shown, including scenes from Wagner's Die Walküre, Massenet's Werther and Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. There was even footage of Kaufmann performing Vesti La Giubba from Pagliacci at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2015.

If all this, and the photo montages of Kaufmann in action at the Met, pushed the promotional trappings a little too obviously, no matter. Revisiting his triumphs was a reminder of what opera fans are missing right now.

The 12-concert recital series, hosted by Christine Goerke, will include performances from various locations by Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Bryn Terfel, Angel Blue, Lise Davidsen and others. One delicate issue came up during Gelb's recent Times interview: While the stars participating in the series are being paid, the Met's orchestra and chorus, among other employees, remain furloughed. But Gelb said the recitals, and other initiatives, are necessary to keep the company going.

"If there's no Met to come back to", he said, "the jobs of our furloughed artists will be lost". Kaufmann implicitly acknowledged this at the end of the concert, after a valiant performance of Nessun Dorma. He and Deutsch, following hygiene protocols, bumped elbows instead of shaking hands. Then Kaufmann spoke of what a "pleasure and privilege" it was to be the first singer in the recital series. Not all musicians have that privilege right now, he added. So he announced that he was donating US$5,000 to artists who are out of work, with the hope that they and audiences will be together again soon. NYTIMES

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