Juan Diego Flórez sings bel canto

Norma – Overture
I puritani – A te, o cara
Semiramide – Overture
La donna del largo – Pace non trovo … Tu sorda ai miei lamenti
Guillaume Tell – Overture; Asile héréditaire
Lucrezia Borgia – Partir degg’io … T’amo qual s’ama un angelo
Don Pasquale – Overture
La favorite – La maîtresse du roi … Ange si pur
La fille du régiment – Overture; Amici miei

Juan Diego Flórez (tenor)

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Carlo Rizzi

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 12 July, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Juan Diego FlórezA capacity crowd filled the Barbican Hall to witness a friendly between the current number-one note-striker, the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, and some upstart Phlegm which threatened to rob the Peruvian of his glory, but which in the end left the spectators wondering who would take the trophy.

Any concert with the title given to this one naturally whets the appetite for a feast of virtuosic singing, and there was plenty of this to be heard despite the singer’s obvious indisposition. Flórez kicked off with ‘A te, o cara’ (from “I puritani”) a most appropriate beginning to any recital (not that most singers would have either the nerve or the technique to open with it) in its sense of confident declaration. This aria is the perfect vehicle for Flórez’s art, which in its essence is not merely showy and brilliant but is characterised by good taste, unfaltering legato and restraint, and he sang Arturo’s melody with elegance of phrasing and beauty of tone, managing to give finely shaded meaning to words such as ‘pianto’ and ‘gioia’.

Two infrequently heard Rossini arias challenged Flórez’s status as the Rubini of our time, but the taste, technique and flair were all detectable despite the singer not being able to give them everything he had. ‘Tu sorda ai miei lamenti’ merits the epithet ‘fiendish’ in its sometimes almost literally breathtaking decorations and its requirement to express the most consuming passion, and ‘Asile héréditaire’ presents an equal test for the singer with its relentlessly taxing lines – Flórez sang both with his customary refinement of phrasing and one of the qualities which mark him out for true greatness, that is eagerness without overstatement.

The all-Donizetti second half went into injury time, with the audience wondering if its hero would make it onto the ‘pitch’ for the final aria, but make it he did. ‘T’amo qual s’ama un angelo’ had us on the edge of our seats, not only because we were contemplating the possibility of Flórez not managing those stratospheric notes, but also because of the subtlety of expression which he gave to these commonplace sentiments. Both here and in ‘Ange si pur’ his diction was faultless – his French in particular has the kind of bite which very few non-native speakers can muster – and it was remarkable that despite what must have been strong temptation, he managed to resist the urge to use intrusive aspirates to help him through the divisions: would that most other singers in perfect health could do the same.

Of course, everyone was waiting for ‘Amici miei’, Flórez’s calling card with its nine high Cs – would he make them? Was he fit to play? In a burst of heroic vocal agility before the final whistle he got most of them in the net. This brought the score to one-all and Flórez had all to play for in extra time. He told us that they had prepared something from“L’elisir d’amore” – “but you don’t want to hear that” – so instead we got the cabaletta from “Il barbiere di Siviglia”, sung with jewel-like brilliance in spite of that pesky frog in the throat.

As always in this kind of recital, the arias were sandwiched between overtures – I’ve fulminated about this elsewhere, but I still can’t see why the music for which most of the audience has come should form such a small part of the evening; by my reckoning, on this occasion the singing was just over 36 minutes and overtures played for nearly 42 minutes. This is not to disparage the superb playing of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra under Carlo Rizzi, but an overture is exactly that, an opening which establishes mood, atmosphere and narrative, and should be followed by the raising of a curtain (or more likely, the cessation by various minions of dusting / thrusting / adjusting their AK-47s) – it is not an interlude during which the audience dozes off whilst waiting for the reappearance of the star.

Final score: Flórez 2, Phlegm 1.

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