Jonas Kaufmann in Turku
Jonas Kaufmann recently had his debut recital in Finland. It was organized by the Turku Music Festival as a pre-festival event in July. The talented and ambitious tenor Topi Lehtipuu is the festival’s artistic director, but this particular recital was the result of the connections and will-power of the festival’s managing director, Ms. Liisa Ketomäki.
This was an orchestral recital with opera arias, spiced with overtures and interludes that built a convincing program of Puccini, Giordano, Leoncavallo, Verdi, Massenet, Bized and Wagner to showcase the Kaufmann talent.
Jonas Kaufmann clearly added heat to the already hot summer evening in the practically un-airconditioned Turku Concert Hall. It is a plain 1952 building with mediocre acoustics, and presently in a shabby connection. (There was a serious plan to build a new concert venue in Turku by the year 2011 when the city was a European Culture Capital. Unfortunately populist political horse-trading destroyed the plans, alas the poor venue.)
Kaufmann brought along his own conductor, Jochen Rieder. The Finnish orchestra, Jyväskylä Sinfonietta (expanded with musicians from major orchestras) rose to the occasion, but would have benefited from more rehearsal time amidst the holiday month, and from lesser heat and humidity inside the hall.
The surroundings were soon forgotten as Kaufmann was in his element and revealed himself to be genuinely a ”gift from heaven”. Every music lover present at the recital will have marked that day in the mental calendar of life: I was there then.
The nouanced warmth and depth of Kaufmann’s voice is not what you would expect from a ”tenor”, but all the tenor qualities needed were at his disposal when required for. The interpretations were touching and genuinely felt but also clearly intelligent. Those sublime pianissimi that carried through the hall, and the uncanny ability to thin the voice and build it into a formidable crescendo! Time and again, he brought the house down.
An artist and a singer quite in his own league. Also remarkable how unfussy and un-divo his stage presence was; no grand gestures, no mannerisms. Just a man who knows how to -and loves to- sing!
The Finnish audience was in ecstacy from early on, and a beaming Kaufmann gave four sublime encores.
Initially the recital had been quickly sold out, and the 1000 seat capacity could have been sold three times over. The recital set a great example. Finnish venues have long tended to bring to Finland vocal artists who are at the end of their careers. They may have enjoyed decades of success and fame, and this populist view of the names’ familiarity and fame has over-ridden the actual remaining singing skills. It is OK to appreciate a singer for the memory of what the voice was, but boy, does it make a difference to actually hear a singer in his peak!
WNO and Manon Lescaut at Savonlinna Festival
Every summer, The Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland gives the audiences a possibility to also get acquainted with a foreign opera company, usually with two different productions, in the month-long festival.
It’s a good opportunity to compare the skills and the approaches with Savonlinna Festival’s own productions, and with Helsinki’s National opera, too. (The possibility to compare is oddly strengthened in the next season when both Savonlinna Festival and the National Opera are presenting Boris Godunow, Figaro and The Merry Widow, despite their planning committees’ joint sessions to avoid such clashes.)
This summer, the Wales National Opera (WNO) paid a welcome and on many levels, successful visit.
Upon my arrival in Savonlinna, I heard from many friends in the music business that the previous evening’s premiere of Nabucco had been quite impressive: a first-class orchestra, the mixed chorus in great form, and many good singers in the lead roles. I was eagerly awaiting my evening’s Manon Lescaut.
Reconceived by Mariusz Trelias as a Film Noir style melodrama and set in a vague ”modern times” with visual influences from the 1960’s to the 80’s and the 2010’s, this Manon Lescaut was a fascinating experiment where Puccini and the orchestra came out as the winners.
Convincingly conducted by Lothar Koenigs, the WNO orchestra sounded roundly lush, exact, seductive and made one think about reasons for such a sound: musn’t it, behind the collective polish, be based on the musicians’ sociability? In addition to the skills and the conductor, a matter of personality and culture? Must a good orchestra player be a chamber musician at heart first?
Film Noir moods and various spaces were created on stage with three large video screens which cleverly changed the sets from a subway station with rushing trains to a lonely bar, or more symbolically, into an expanding crimson pool of blood/passion, or a thinning flame of life. At its most successful, Puccini’s orchestral passages were seamlessly interwoven with the video screens’ calmly nocturnal runs through a wistful city gleaming with neon-lights; stunning.
Puccini and Film Noir have much in common: a sea of melancholy through which sparks of hope for love or bursts of passion break through, a sense of doom or fatality, the arch of drama and The Inevitable at its conclusion. Associations of the music and this production reminded me how much the film composers of epic style & ambitions actually owe to Puccini. A live opera production as cinematic as this presented Puccini as the The Film Composer of All Times.
Despite the effort, the transition into modern times did not quite work. Towards the end, the events started to feel scattered, the props seemed to clutter, something vital of the story vanished. The direction seemed lost, and certainly Manon, the Roman soprano Chiara Taigi, was lost: she ran around the stage trying to choose a place to die, and upon death, remembered to fold her skirt to fall more attractively on her legs… This concept called for a Femme Fatale and a calmer approach; Taigi’s Manon was girlish and hysterically jumpy.
Taigi’s soprano had a fascinating darkness to it, and a depth surprising for a soprano. But her top notes came out forced and sometimes neared screaming. As the lover des Grieux, the tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Italianate voice took its time to warm but reached an impressive splendour. Unfortunately the chemistry between Taigi and Jones did not blossom on stage, they remained strangers, and that had an impact on the believability of the whole story.
The most spot-on scene in the concept takes place in the house of Manon’s keeper, Geront, when visiting musicians start to sing madrigals. The chanteuses have identical glitter miniskirts and 1960’s blond wigs. The music is sung into microphones with The Supremes -poses, and with good vocal skill. The concept works, and Manon’s boredom in the Salon receives an ironic underline; Poor Little Rich Girl.
The Mirjam Helin Competition
The Finnish soprano Mirjam Helin (1911-2006) became a singer and a pedagogue despite her father’s and fiance’s warnings and threats. She studied singing in Rome, Vienna and Paris, had her praised debut recital in 1938 and completed her diploma in 1941. A solo recital in Paris in 1950 was a great success, and offers landed for Wagner roles even from the Paris Opera. But instead of a career in opera, she had chosen a married life in Finland and to work for her father’s business as he had insisted. Ultimately she became a beloved vocal coach.
In 1981, as a 70-year old widow, she decided to depart with a grand portion of her financial wealth, and with the Finnish Culture Foundation, an international signing competition was established under her and her late husband’s name. The first competition was held in 1984, and they have taken place every five years since.
Miss Helin was a formidable character who relished the possibility to follow the success of her competition well into her 90’s. She loved cars, and even when old and frail, she possesed the stamina to drive her own. She had a wonderful sense of style and occasion. I was invited to a private dinner with her not long before her death. She arrived well coiffed, wearing an elegant suit by Chanel, the perfect heels and simple but important jewellry to match, and a nicely understated bag. Her wit was sharp as ever, and we had a ball!
The Mirjam Helin competition is going on in Helsinki right at this moment, and what a special opportunity it is for all involved! Nearly 400 singers had applied to the competition, and 46 singers were chosen. Nineteen singers continue to the semi-finals on August 9 and 10 at the Helsinki Music Centre, with the final on the 13th. Master classes are arranged, and one of the jury members, the American soprano Deborah Voight, gives a Q & A ”tell all” to vocal students.
The competition gives a great boost to music lovers and students alike, to the pianists and the producers. A fabulous time for budding talent, vocal blossom, and the future!
Link to the competition’s official web page: http://mirjamhelin.fi/en