Jonas Rides Back Onto the Met Stage; A Star is Born

Johnson seduces Minnie, photo @ Ken Howard
Over four years ago I saw Jonas Kaufmann's final Werther. It was the HD performance. The whole run had been a huge success and during his curtain call fans tore up programs from the family circle boxes so it rained confetti. Little did I know that he would not return to the United States to sing for nearly four years. The short story is he canceled a lot. The long story is he canceled a lot.

But 2018 was the year Jonas changed his mind about singing in the US? I can't believe this but I've now seen him four times in less than one year -- a lieder recital in January, a concert version of Act 2 of Tristan in April, and a rather disappointing concert a few weeks ago. Still to see Jonas back on the Met stage was something I was afraid was never going to happen again. I was a mix of excited and jittery last night as I took my seat for La Fanciulla del West. My heart sunk when there was a curtain announcement. The poor guy who came out was clearly dreading the audience response. He held up his hand as if to say "Don't kill me." But it was simply that Kaufmann had a cold and he asked for our "understanding."

Kaufmann, photo @ Ken Howard
So how was Jonas? For much of the first act I would have said "not very good." His voice either wasn't completely warmed up yet or he was trying too hard to sing through a cold. The tone was surprisingly dry and constricted, with little of the trumpet-like brilliance I associate with his voice. It wasn't until the gorgeous duet that ends the act that Kaufmann sounded like himself.

Fortunately he improved in the following two acts. His voice does seem to have lost some sheer horsepower, but Kaufmann is a shrewd manager of his own vocal resources. After listening to the excruciating Roberto Alagna in Samson et Dalila and Aleksandr Antonenko in Aida it was a relief to hear a tenor who could actually ... sing. Kaufmann controls his voice with an iron grip -- when he wants to sing softly he sings softly, when he wants to sound stentorian he sounds stentorian. By "Ch'ella mi creda" Kaufmann was fully in his element. His upper register is ringing and secure, his musicality and enunciation of text scrupulous, and his burnished dark-hued tenor is still one of the most compelling voices we have today.

His acting was his usual -- reserved but strangely compelling. His Ramirez/Dick Johnson was a rather glum creature who is used to living in the shadows of life. Despite the black cowboy costume (replete with hat, saddle and horse) Kaufmann exuded a Don Draper-like cool. If you're looking for full-throated, hot-blooded romanticism, Kaufmann is not your tenor. But hey, I never missed an episode of Mad Men and a huge part of that was the inscrutable, distant Don Draper. And in his own way he had good chemistry with Westbroek. Like him or not Kaufmann is the total package. It's so good to have him back in New York singing again.

Minnie cheats at poker, photo @ Ken Howard
Eva Marie Westbroek was a lovable, spunky Minnie. The core of her voice is warm and vulnerable, her portrayal heartbreaking and believable. It's always stretched credibility that Minnie, owner of the Polka Saloon in the Wild West, has never been kissed before. But Westbroek is such a sincere performer that one believed that Minnie is saving herself for the right man. She transitioned seamlessly from the shy lover to the ruthless poker player in the Act Two showdown with Jack Rance.

Alas, Westbroek's voice repeatedly came to grief with Minnie's many ascents into the upper register. High notes came out as either weak, flat and unsupported or not at all. Sometimes they were little more than screams. Puccini's orchestration shimmers and glows whenever Minnie goes up high -- when done right, those notes should sound like ecstatic expressions of love or fierce declamations with the orchestra fusing with the soprano's voice. So when the beautiful orchestration went up high and Westbroek's voice simply could not follow the orchestra, the impact of Minnie's music was muted. Westbroek is a treasurable artist with a voice that will no longer cooperate. Still, you had to love her, high notes or not.

Zeljiko Lucic did his usual thing as Jack Rance. He sure is reliable and never cancels. With that being said, his acting and singing are usually so generalized that there isn't much difference between his Rance and his Scarpia or Rigoletto or Iago. He's always just the generically bad guy. Even in the foolproof poker scene Lucic was oddly low-energy. When he lost the poker game he just walked out of the cabin without any expression.

Polka Saloon, photo @ Ken Howard
Giancarlo delMonaco's production is an old one (from 1991) and looks like an episode of Gunsmoke -- very traditional, but with little in the way of direction. One of the things Puccini did masterfully was draw little cameos of the various characters in Minnie's saloon -- there's Jack Wallace who sings a heartbreaking song about his longing for home and family, Ashby the Wells Fargo agent (Matthew Rose), and Sonora (Michael Todd Simpson) who urges the miners to forgive Dick Johnson in the final act. But in this revival all these guys were a blur, lost amid a throng of people. It's too bad that Oren Gradus (Jack Wallace) really distinguished himself but in all the wrong ways -- his wobbly bass ruined the exquisite ballad "Che ferrano i vecchi miei." But the production had its picturesque old fashioned charm. The moment when snow falls outside Minnie's cabin is lovely. Conductor Marco Armiliato led a workmanlike performance in the pit -- he follows his singers and doesn't draw attention to the orchestra. Too bad, because the opera has some of Puccini's most evocative orchestration.

It's a shame the house was not sold out because this might be Puccini's most rewarding opera. It has none of the slash-and-burn theatrics of Tosca or the sentimentality of La Boheme. It's quietly heartbreaking. "Minnie's theme" (which Andrew Lloyd Webber shamelessly lifted for Phantom of the Opera) is a slow-burn earworm -- hear it once and it sounds nice, but by the end of the evening it's fully lodged in your head. Fanciulla is also one of the few Puccini operas to end on a note of ambiguity -- Minnie and Dick Johnson start a new life together, but what will they do? Where will they go? How long is it before Johnson's past catches up with him again? And what will happen to all the sad miners who have lost their leader? There are only two performances of Fanciulla left -- don't miss it.

Cooper and Gaga
In other news I saw the latest rendition of A Star is Born. It was absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking, definitely a worthy successor to the Judy Garland film. This story never gets old no matter how many times it's told because there's a core of truth that applied to the entertainment business way back when and applies today. The business creates stars and destroys them with astonishing rapidity. This version of A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper as country rock star Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as aspiring singer Ally. There is a subplot about another fallen star -- Jackson Maine's older brother (an excellent Sam Elliot) who was once a star himself before he became his brother's manager/caretaker.

Lady Gaga is extraordinary in her film debut. I'm sure will win an Oscar for "Best Song" and probably will walk away with the Best Actress statuette as well.  She's earthy, funny and likable (not a surprise for anyone who's ever seen her delightful SNL sketches), so we want her to become a huge star. Like Judy Garland she is a tiny woman with a huge voice and a huge heart. "Shallow," 'I'll Never Love Again" and "Always Remember Us This Way" might not quite be at the level of "The Man That Got Away" but they are great displays of Gaga's diverse talent. (The movie pays a neat homage to Judy Garland by having Ally sing the first verse of "Over the Rainbow" as she leaves her waitressing shift.)

One weakness of the George Cukor film was that James Mason never seemed like a believable fallen star -- from the first moment the film was a tribute to the protean talent of Judy Garland. In this latest rendition Bradley Cooper (who also directed the film) made Jackson Maine's downfall heartbreaking because he does start off as a believable superstar. A boozing, pill-popping superstar but he has charisma and charm to burn. He and Gaga have great chemistry and their love for each other was palpable. Even at their lowest you believed in them as a couple. Switching the focus from the film to the music industry was smart as Cooper sang for many portions of the movie. When Ally joins Jackson Maine onstage to sing "Shallow" the moment is electrifying -- the convergence of two voices, two hearts, two talents. As Jackson continued to spiral downwards the magic of the two of them singing together onstage was never forgotten -- they coulda been  contenders together. As the final act approached even though I knew what would happen Cooper's soulful acting still packed an emotional punch. I left the movie crying buckets.



  1. Ivy I an glad I found you--a Parterisn posted your address. I am sorry that you were the recipient of bad behavior but the internet is its home alas. But I am glad you didn't disappear--just reinvented yourself so to speak. David Dollinger

    1. David I was in a school where some students found my page and started leaving vile comments like "You should be making some pork fried rice." So I decided to change the address. The "humbled and overwhelmed" is a joke about how every Met HD interview goes. Every singer is always so humbled and overwhelmed.
      Glad to see you back on the internets too.

  2. Is Ivy Lin the name of a real person? Whoever it is writes
    better reviews than any of those big overrated names in big
    overrated newspapers and magazines.

    1. Uh hi, not sure I know how to respond to this but yes I am Ivy Lin and I am very real. Here is my facebook page:
      And thanks for the kind words.


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