In classical music circles, Christmas arrives with the overture to Handel’s Messiah. Or so they’ll tell you. In truth, festivities kick off when you hear a ping from your phone and glance down at your inbox: OMG — you have to hear this! There follows, as tonic follows dominant, a link to YouTube and the 2014 Christmas in Vienna Medley — the occasion, still barely fathomable to anyone who believes that we share a common European culture, when a quartet of opera singers in full evening dress, and shimmying on the spot like a vicar at a Sunday School disco, attempted to cover George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’.
But not this year. Oh no. Vienna has fallen; deposed, in a glitter-encrusted, glühwein-soaked coup by — of all people — Jonas Kaufmann. Everyone knew that Kaufmann was planning a Christmas album, and allowances had already been made for a certain level of kitsch. Opera singers have been releasing Christmas albums for decades, all of them projecting, to one degree or another, the aura of a Ferrero Rocher advert. But the early buzz on social media suggested that Jonas was in another class. ‘Astonishing’ was at the milder end, and a shocked consensus swiftly emerged. This wasn’t just embarrassing, this was the operatic equivalent of the boss photocopying his arse at the office Christmas party. Ambassador, you are really spoiling us.
True, you mightn’t realise it for a while. For the first hour or so, it’s fairly routine seasonal crossover — overstuffed orchestration, a backing choir, and the headline name warbling plummily on top in heavily accented English. Kaufmann can get a long way on that glorious dark bronze tenor, and many of the songs here are German: rather lovely and, to Anglophone listeners, unhackneyed. We’re a long way from, say, the Three Tenors’ ‘Sleigh Ride’, where one of the superstar trio (possibly Pavarotti) gets so tongue-tied that the arranger cuts to a children’s choir after 30 seconds.
Still, as Alan Partridge pointed out, on the Titanic’s maiden voyage there were more than 1,000 miles of uneventful, very pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg; or, in Kaufmann’s case, Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’. Let’s be clear — the song is not the problem. Classical stars have been colonising popular repertoire since the day in 1902 when Caruso recorded the parlour songs of Paolo Tosti for posterity (and, of course, profit), and the results can be terrific. Who’d be without Giuseppe di Stefano’s Neapolitan songs? Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ specially for the great Italian bass Ezio Pinza.
A 1960 recording of Die Fledermaus features the Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, accompanied by Herbert von Karajan and the full Vienna Philharmonic, singing ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle rides with the Valkyries. And if you enjoy that, why not take it to the next level with Torsten Rasch’s ‘Mein Herz brennt’ — an ear-splitting homage to the German metal band Rammstein, in the style of Alban Berg? It’s already on my festive playlist. The key, it seems, is to avoid self-consciousness — to sound like you might plausibly mean it. Otherwise you end up with Leonard Bernstein’s 1985 recording of West Side Story, in which, after decades of swallowing his own PR, Bernstein decided to cast his great Broadway hit like it was Tosca. Kiri Te Kanawa’s attempt at a Puerto Rican accent makes Manuel from Fawlty Towers sound nuanced.
Interestingly, when pop singers travel the other way, they’re often more convincing. Sting’s album of Dowland lute songs divides opinions; but music this potent shouldn’t be monopolised by Oxbridgey countertenors. Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s ‘Barcelona’ — like Aretha Franklin’s performance of ‘Nessun Dorma’ — is unambiguously fabulous; singers who knew exactly who they were and exactly how to bring it. Barbra Streisand’s 1976 recital of songs by Schubert, Fauré, Handel and Schumann — performed in a strikingly pure voice, lightly brushed with vibrato — sounds positively ahead of its time. Glenn Gould adored it.
Plus, Barbra is at least in tune. The real shock of Jonas singing Mariah is that he sounds so bizarre. That peerless voice is goofy and oddly nasal. Unthinkably, the tuning is strained: the man who makes Florestan and Don Alvaro blaze like few singers alive is hitting bum notes. The result has been compared to the vocal stylings of Kermit the Frog, and the gulf between Pol Roger potential and Cheeky Vimto outcome is what makes this track a joy for ever. Kaufmann’s reputation will survive, of course, and there’s an engaging lack of preciousness in the fact that he allowed it to be released at all. Meanwhile, it’s Christmas, and do you want to hear the greatest Parsifal of our time singing like a Muppet? Of course you do. Just know this: you can never unhear it.
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