Dolce Vita—Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Orchestra del Teatro Massimo di Palermo; Asher Fisch, conductor [Sony Classical 88875183632; 1 CD, 66:50; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
For those whose knowledge of Italian culture is defined by pasta and prohibitively-expensive shoes; those who have never seen the early-morning light creeping into Piazza di San Marco or watched the sun set over the cliffs of Sorrento; those who have never inhaled air heavy with aromas of freshly-pressed olives, just-sliced lemons, and truffles still damp with earth; for those for whom Italy is an irregular boot on a map, la dolce vita is perhaps nothing more than a poetic conceit or a 1960 Federico Fellini film seen on television during a sleepless night. Perhaps it is something genetic, something that those without Italian blood in their veins can observe and experience but never possess, a cultural essence as elusive as the answers to Turandot’s riddles. Like many of those aspects of life that are most difficult to translate into words, perhaps la dolce vita is an ever-changing spezzatino of the simplest ingredients: family dinners, hand-in-hand walks at twilight, Tuscan vistas, and the Amalfi sea air. The notion that Italians stroll through the streets of their towns great and small with operatic arias swelling their hearts and lungs is no more accurate than the cinematically-induced supposition that organized crime is a national pastime, but song is an integral part of Italy’s immortal mystique: ‘cambiano i suonatori,’ Italians say, ‘ma la musica è sempre quella.’ Dolce Vita, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s Sony Classical omaggio to the Italian spirit that has enthralled him since family holidays took him as a boy from his native Bavaria to the land of bel canto, is an affectionate survey of eighteen songs that epitomize the inimitable musical soul of bella Italia. La dolce vita is an ephemeral concept with different meanings for different people at different times, but hearing this disc can transport even the listener whose closest contact with Italy is the neighborhood pizzeria to the patria melodiosa of Pasta, Patti, Gigli, and Gobbi.
In the years since José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti redefined the commercial potential of tenor singing with their 1990 concert at the Terme di Caracalla, the recording of which launched the global Three Tenors phenomenon, Lucio Dalla’s ‘Caruso’ and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ‘Mattinata’ have been two of the unofficial anthems of aggressively-marketed tenordom. Pavarotti absorbed ‘Caruso’ into his concert repertory very soon after its composition, and the song is now performed by tenors of every imaginable sub-Fach. Kaufmann sings the number affectionately but without overdoing the pathos, allowing the text to speak for itself without ruining his performance with syrupy pseudo-tragedy. Likewise, Kaufmann’s artistic shrewdness steers him clear of the temptation to sing ‘Mattinata’ as though it were a lost aria from Pagliacci. There is no lack of drama in his performance, but it is drama drawn from the song itself rather than imposed on it. Pacing these songs is hardly the equivalent of conducting Parsifal, but Israeli conductor Asher Fisch provides solid support in these and all of the selections on Dolce Vita, seconded by enthusiastic but sometimes rough-edged playing by the Orchestra del Teatro Massimo di Palermo.
No information about precisely where and when this disc was recorded is provided, but Kaufmann’s vocalism often sounds fatigued, especially in the near-relentless assaults on his upper register. A component of the tenor’s artistic magnetism is the thoughtfulness of his endeavors, however, and this is no empty-headed recital of sunny tunes. Kaufmann looks deeply though not necessarily critically into the texts and structures of these songs, and he honors Italy by highlighting the variety and skillfulness of purveyors of her popular song. Nino Rota was one of Italy’s—and the world’s—most significant Twentieth-Century tunesmiths, and his and lyricist Gianni Boncompagni’s ‘Parla più piano,’ known for its use in the film The Godfather, receives from Kaufmann a reading distinguished by subtlety and understatement. At his most emphatic, Kaufmann never stands in the way of the music. To his credit, he simply sings these songs rather than engaging in self-indulgent, pretentious ‘interpreting.’ ‘Passione,’ with music by Ernesto Tagliaferri and Nicola Valente and words by Libero Bovio, is especially effective here because Kaufmann focuses on the relationship between the words and the melodic line rather than on consciously striving to create a particular mood: this the songs does without manipulation, but not all singers are perceptive enough to notice. The same is true of ‘Un amore così grande,’ and Kaufmann devotes equal attention to the song’s music by Guido Maria Ferrilli and words by composer and Antonella Maggio. The dark timbre of his voice is often at odds with the bright patinas of this music, and though his good diction is not apt to be mistaken for that of a native speaker he intelligently puts the contrast between the wide-open emotions of a song like Romano Musumarra’s and Luca Barbarossa’s ‘Il canto’ and his opaque vowels to use as an expressive device.
Giovanni d’Anzi’s and Tito Manlio’s ‘Voglio vivere così’ is dispatched by Kaufmann with gleaming tones, the lyrics enunciated with clarity. The charm of Salvatore Cardillo’s and Riccardo Cordiferro’s ‘Catari’, Catari’ (Core ’ngrato)’ finds an uninhibited outlet in the tenor’s traversal, the muscular sound of his voice giving the music a rhythmic spine that it lacks in many performances. The verve with which Kaufmann approaches each song is especially beneficial in his accounts of Ernesto de Curtis’s and Domenico Furnò’s ‘Ti voglio tanto bene’ and ‘Non ti scordar di me.’ A great-grandson of composer Saverio Mercadante, several of whose operatic rôles for tenor would be near-ideal fits for Kaufmann, De Curtis is one of the great songwriters of any era and nationality, and his music often seems to tap a vein that flows directly from the heart of Italy. Kaufmann cloaks ‘Ti voglio tanto bene’ in ardent yearning, and his bronzed sound makes the evergreen ‘Non ti scordar di me’ sound like a musical and situational cousin of Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quittes pas.’ With lyrics by Ernesto’s brother Giambattista de Curtis, ‘Torna a Surriento’ is another of the younger de Curtis’s finest achievements. Both brothers would undoubtedly be appreciative of this recording of their song, words and music given their due without the slightest suggestion of artifice.
Kaufmann sings the anonymous ‘Fenesta ca lucive’ incisively. As elsewhere on Dolce Vita, however, the results of his commendably straightforward endeavor are compromised to an extent by his toil. Still, no concerns complicate enjoyment of his voicing of Stanislao Gastaldon’s ‘Musica proibita’ and Cesare Andrea Bixio’s and Ennio Neri’s [presumably of no relation to the obsidian-voiced bass Giulio] ‘Parlami d’amore, Mariù.’ It is sometimes stated that Kaufmann, a singer with Verdi’s Manrico, Don Alvaro, Don Carlo, and now Radamès and Wagner’s Lohengrin, Walther von Stolzing, Siegmund, and Parsifal in his repertory, possesses an uncommonly large voice, but the strength that he commands is produced by projection, not amplitude or volume. The idea that big voices, powerful voices, and loud voices are identical and interchangeable is potentially ruinous for young singers, but Kaufmann is unusually astute in managing his resources according to the needs of his unique instrument, pushing histrionically but never vocally in his portrayals of characters like Puccini’s Cavaradossi and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. In Domenico Modugno’s and Franco Migliacci’s ‘Volare,’ the singer’s voice soars above the picturesque landscape evoked by the orchestra. Kaufmann’s performance of Vincenzo de Crescenzo’s and Luigi Sica’s ‘Rondine al nido’ is one of the greatest joys of Dolce Vita. There is always a fascination in hearing serious artists take on ‘lighter’ repertory, but in the context of Dolce Vita it is Kaufmann’s seriousness, apparent in his sincerity of expression, that is the light that illuminates the beauties of these songs.
Familiarized throughout the world by singers like Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, and Josh Groban, Francesco Sartori’s and Lucio Quarantotto’s ‘opera pop’ hit ‘Con te partirò’ remains one of the highest-grossing songs in any genre owing in no small part to its chorus, a soaring melody with the visceral appeal of a Puccini aria. Though preferable to an effortful, belted climax, the falsetto ending here is a misjudgment, sounding oddly strained, but, with no disrespect to the ranks of its previous interpreters, hearing a voice of true substance in the song is most welcome. The Eros Ramazzotti-esque pop croon that Kaufmann adopts for the disc’s final track, Stephin Merritt’s and Zucchero’s ‘Il libro dell‘amore,’ is anything but the most attractive of the sounds that the tenor produces in the course of Dolce Vita, but his performance of the song is strangely beguiling. Sounding properly awed and perhaps slightly frightened by what the pages of this book of love contain, one of the world’s most celebrated singers is for a moment an awkward boy tasting love for the first time. Through the power of song, his voice becomes that of every earnest lover.
A nation’s cultural identity cannot be reduced to platitudes and soundbites. It is impossible even with avalanches of words to quantify the qualities that make one community’s way of life different from others’. So much time is wasted contemplating what separates us from one another when what truly matters, what gives misguided and mistrusting humanity hope, is facilitating and fostering connections that unite us. Perhaps Italy’s appeal extends so far beyond her borders and diaspora because her culture, so recognizable even when undefinable, is endearingly welcoming. Join an Italian family at table, and it no longer matters which nation’s arms grace one’s passport: to be invited is to be accepted and embraced, to be initiated into a culture that thrives on celebrations of life’s moments, good and bad. No disc can fully capture or convey the spirit of Italy, but in the sixty-seven minutes of Dolce Vita Jonas Kaufmann blends the sultry, sensual sounds of timeless Italy into a savory ragù that nourishes the senses. Dolce Vita is far from perfect, but so are Italy and those who love her. Viva le imperfezioni!
La bella voce della dolce vita: Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who celebrates the exuberant spirit of Italy on the Sony Classical recording Dolce Vita
[Photo by Julian Hargreaves, © by Sony Classical]