Jonas Kaufmann keeps his personality hidden in this unexceptional documentary - review

Elusive: who is the real Jonas Kaufmann? - ©ALASTAIR MUIR CONTACT
Elusive: who is the real Jonas Kaufmann? - ©ALASTAIR MUIR CONTACT

Trailed on the voiceover as “arguably the greatest singer of his generation”, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was the subject of a leisurely, amiable – and at 90 minutes, over-extended – documentary. Director John Bridcut followed him through a series of globe-trotting triumphs, interspersed with the usual snatches of interview and talking heads (briefly including myself) spouting compliments and platitudes. 

There were cute glimpses of the star cheering Bayern Munich on from the stands and sneaking into Fortnum and Mason’s to buy shortbread, but higher drama was signally lacking; the best moment came when Kaufmann was standing in the wings seconds before his debut at Covent Garden in the demanding title-role of Verdi’s Otello. Realising he had forgotten his sword, he sprinted back to the dressing room to collect it – and it emerged that this incident that would have reduced others to blind panic or screaming rage was for him apparently only a great laugh. He has cool, that’s for sure. 

Kaufmann with Maria Agresta in Otello at Covent Garden - Credit: Alastair Muir
Kaufmann with Maria Agresta in Otello at Covent Garden Credit: Alastair Muir

Kaufmann gave little away; his girlfriend, Opera director Christiane Lutz, was only distantly glimpsed, his family stayed out of the picture entirely and we learned little about his background and nothing about his inner life. He is a wonderfully handsome man, with a dazzling smile and a hearty Teutonic sense of humour, but he is not tremendously interesting. Here, he seemed neither inspired nor neurotic – what drives him, what terrifies him, what goes on inside remained undetectable.

Kaufmann faces two ongoing battles. One is to keep his more infatuated knicker-throwing fans at bay, which he does with exemplary grace and politeness. The other is to preserve his vocal health: we heard about the five months he spent virtually silent while waiting for a persistently bursting blood vessel in his throat to heal, we saw how a sniff turned into bronchitis and we watched his throat being massaged. He insisted on comparing himself to a sportsman who can only deliver when in peak physical condition, but he seemed super-sensitive in this area, and the programme soft-pedalled on the fact that he has developed a deplorable record for exasperating cancellations, in contrast to other singers who have more robust methods of coping with minor respiratory infections.

Yet he also emerged as a good-tempered, popular colleague who enjoys performing, as well as a superb musician with a rock-solid technique – Antonio Pappano commented on his miraculous breath control and his father-figure pianist Helmut Deutsch had some interesting things to say about his early development.  Opera buffs will have been excited by the programme’s hints that he will one day sing Britten’s Peter Grimes and Wagner’s Tristan, but one was left pondering how someone with his sang-froid plugs into such tortured characters.

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