New York: The Metropolitan Opera season still has two and a half weeks to run, but it`s doubtful anything will be heard on that stage to match Jonas Kaufmann as the tormented soldier Don Jose in Bizet`s ‘Carmen.’
Come to think of it, there`s been little to equal it during the previous seven months either.
The German tenor gave the first of only two performances in the role Wednesday night, and his ardent, effortless singing and skilful acting combined to make this one of the greatest personal triumphs at the house in recent memory.
From the moment he fell under the seductive spell of the gypsy Carmen in Act 1, Kaufmann gave voice to his conflicting emotions in singing that moved seamlessly between soft, pleading phrases of unearthly beauty and powerful outbursts of passion.
The "Flower Song," his Act 2 aria, was heart-stopping in its nuanced control, right up to a climactic top note that diminished gradually until it all but disappeared. In the final scene, as he failed in his last, desperate attempt to regain Carmen`s love, he turned in an instant with frightening believability from pathetic suitor to frenzied killer.
Coming on the heels of his splendid Met performances in Puccini`s "Tosca," this "Carmen" bolsters Kaufmann`s reputation as one of the finest operatic artists of his generation. At age 41, he has matured into a "lirico spinto" tenor, with a strong baritonal underpinning. His voice can shine in a wide variety of repertory, remaining smooth and lyrical while producing impressive volume and cutting through heavy orchestration with ease. Absent from the Met for the past two seasons, he`ll be back next year in a plum role: Siegmund in "Die Walkuere," one of the operas in Wagner`s "Ring" cycle.
Besides introducing Met audiences to Kaufmann`s Don Jose, the evening also brought a new Carmen to the house. Kate Aldrich, a young American mezzo-soprano, is a rising star in Europe, but her only previous Met appearances had been in the small role of Maddalena in Verdi`s "Rigoletto."
She sounded tentative in Act 1, with a Habanera that didn`t quite catch fire and a Seguidilla whose climactic high note was inaudible. But she improved in Act 2, where her ease of movement (including a perfectly executed cartwheel!) seemed to loosen up her singing as well. Her voice is at its most luscious in the middle of her register, losing a bit of steam at either end.
A strikingly attractive woman, she was a worthy partner for the handsome Kaufmann in their scenes together. In Act 4, her groan of disgust as he tried to caress her hand registered as a visceral shock both to him and to the audience.
Repeating performances from earlier in the season in this new Richard Eyre production were Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska, whose pure, silvery sound is well-suited to the girl-back-home role of Micaela, and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, vocally out of his depth as the toreador Escamillo.
Alain Altinoglu conducted the Met orchestra with stylish sweep and delicate attention to detail.
The final performance is this Saturday night.