Tempest in a Tenor

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Google the term “Mozartean tenor” and you come up with roughly 35,600 results. Do the same to “Beethovenean tenor” and you’re left with a paltry 7. Perhaps that’s unsurprising—Mozart, after all, wrote 22 operas or works of music theater whereas Beethoven wrote one (Fidelio). And there are the all-purpose terms of “spinto,” “dramatic” and “Heldentenor” that cross, Venn-diagram like, to form the role of Florestan in Fidelio.

But is that even entirely accurate? On the most recent recording of Fidelio, released by Decca earlier this summer in a live performance from the Lucerne Festival, Jonas Kaufmann’s Florestan escapes traditional categorization. Not seen or heard until the top of the second act, his two-part aria “Gott! Welch Dunkel Hier!…In Des Lebens Frühlingstagen” is a showstopper, or more accurately a show changer. It adds the dark political realities to the mix of the comparatively lighthearted first act, which follows a Twelfth Night style of mistaken identity and cross-dressing within the plot of a rescue opera.

On recording, Kaufmann sounds broken and desolate, heralded by ominous lower strings and piercingly dissonant woodwinds and brass moving along at a dirge-like pace before swirling into their own wordless scena, setting the tone for a political prisoner facing an almost-certain death. Almost three and a half minutes go by before he actually sings, a cry to God that is initially choked out before reaching a crescendo of ghastly anguish punctuated by doleful violins. Switching into “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen,” his voice is joined by horns and clarinets, sonic representations of the springtime of Florestan’s life. Kaufmann’s voice gains strength in his grief, recounting his character’s tale of doing what was right at the cost of his own life, yet here he adds colorings and shadings of Beethoven’s own “Pastoral” Symphony, spinning a remorsefully verdant tone out of his chocolate-rich tenor.

This moves into unspeakable beauty as he experiences a vision of being saved from death by his wife, however the use of the oboe indicates some mental imbalance (the libretto describes it as “With a calm rapture, which nevertheless verges on madness”) as Florestan welcomes deah, “Freedom in Paradise” at the hands of “an angel just like Leonora, my wife.”

Taken on its own, the aria is a fine work but can seem somewhat inconsequential—a fate that plagues Fidelio due in no small part to it being a unique aspect of Beethoven’s canon, an anomaly among symphonies, sonatas and string quartets. However, Fidelio bridges the Enlightenment ideals of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte's operas with the unabashed Romanticism of the later 19th-century composers. Such songsmiths were the focus of Kaufmann’s recital last Sunday at the Metropolitan Opera, singing works by Liszt, Duparc, Mahler and Richard Strauss illuminated the greater bearings of Beethoven’s vocal music—particularly vocal music written for tenor—on the later lieder canon.

Kaufmann’s full-throttled and full-voiced high notes in Strauss’s pleading Cäcilie were primal and passionate, far out of his range as Mozart’s Tamino on his 2010 arias recording, which also included Florestan’s music from Fidelio. Likewise, Strauss’s Befreit, or “Liberated” shows a sly nod in the piano accompaniment to the “Moonlight” Sonata.

While fellow tenor Matthew Polenzani is equally enjoyable in his recent Wigmore Hall recital album, which features Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (written just two years after the final version of Fidelio and regarded as the first major song cycle by a major composer), his Mozartean tones are immediately recognizable. Not for nothing does his performance of Don Ottavio in the Salzburg Festival’s Don Giovanni—an account that he brings to the Met this winter—remain one of my favorite interpretations of the role.

While the Mozartean tenor, full of emotionally-coded sense is a columned building in the true classical style, Beethoven’s vocal works are some of the first to demand a rugged sensibility in the Romantic tradition that fits Kaufman, a singing Alp, like a tailored glove. Beethoven bridges this gap in a way that would leave his creative DNA in subsequent song collections and operas of the Romantic era and leading into the heart-on-its-sleeve verismo. Here is the full synesthetic combination of all five senses as a means of elevation to a higher plane of consciousness. And, in Kaufmann, here is an interpreter that suggests the term “Beethovenian” tenor may become more relevant.

The Beethovenean tenor: Yea or nay? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.