Review: Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages on BBC Four

I’m a big fan of John Bridcut’s documentaries. Deferential but never self-indulgent, Bridcut’s finished work treats audience and artist with equal respect.

The strong rapport between producer and contributor yields a willingness on the part of artists to share observations with ease, away from the conventional interview set-up. This combined with lingering audio tracks normalises the privilege of the behind-the-scenes access he and us have been granted.

Kaufmann is an affable contributor too, casting himself in the role of a good friend who we’ve dropped in to see at his place of work first, and opera singer second. In this way Bridcut avoids the temptation of cloying obsequiousness when referring to Kaufmann or opera. So far so good.

There is a lot of showing rather than telling that offers insights into the world of an opera singer. The risks of singing with a damaged voice are laid bare. This back-story makes the quality of the man’s voice even more precious when we hear it, especially during the Barbican residency rehearsal footage.

Some time is also spent explaining and defending Kaufmann’s active style in rehearsals where convention would otherwise dictate the conductor takes the lead.

The documentary has a lighter feel compared to the weightier Colin Davis tribute, or the brilliant Britten’s Children and Britten’s Endgame. It’s an interesting portrait of a captivating man whose personality combined with John Bridcut’s trademark documentary style, effortlessly demystifies the genre.

But, the Kaufmann doc lacks a driving question. I end up feeling a little like I’ve flicked through somebody’s photo album, rather than having immersed myself deep in a topic. I’m not quite sure whether that’s because there’s not much else to say about Kaufmann, or whether there wasn’t too much being given away by him.

The Proms sequence in particular jarred ever so slightly. Kaufmann’s appearance at the Last Night in 2015 for example felt like the focus slipped from the tenor to the BBC in a bid to underline the Corporation’s commitment to opera and classical music. Popular as the Last Night of the Proms is, I remain unconvinced that his brief appearance is as important a highlight in the man’s career as perhaps the BBC would like to think. Here it felt like the BBC was insisting it promoted itself.

And on a personal note (and this has nothing to do with the documentary, more to do with the person in the sequence), I am not sure I have felt quite so uncomfortable watching a Kaufmann fan ask whether she could just stand and look into his eyes. Kauffmann was charming as you’d expect him to be. I’m not I would have been able to muster it.

John Bridcut’s Jonas Kaufmann documentary deftly introduces newcomers to a range of operatic repertoire, demystifying it and those who perform it at the same time. Kaufmann lights up the screen with infectious enthusiasm and a hearty laugh. There are flashes of vulnerability that make the man adorable, and a down-to-earth nature a refreshing presence too.

BBC-restrictions stated content relating to John Bridcut’s Kaufman could only be published on the day of broadcast. This meant that only an early cut of the documentary was made available for review. It may well be that some sequences have subsequently been changed before broadcast. 

Watch the Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages on Sunday 14 October 2017 at 9pm on BBC Four, and for 30 days after that on BBC iPlayer.


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