Keeping it Airborne: Juan Diego Florez’s Rome Recital

ItalyItaly Songs and Arias by Bononcini, Ciampi, Piccinni, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Lalo, Offenbach, Padilla, Garcia, Soutullo, Vert, Donizetti, Juan Diego Florez (tenor) Vincenzo Scalera (piano), Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome, 24.5.2012 (JB)

Today’s operatic scene is uncommonly blessed with a galaxy of excellent tenors; within this impressive galaxy, Juan Diego Florez is the star who shines brightest. Unfailingly musical, every inch of the way, the delivery of each phrase feels like an adventure into the unknown, however familiar the music may be. Another word for that is involvement. He is that supreme example of the best definition of a virtuoso: someone who makes difficult music sound easy. Such is the perfection of his technique.

The tenor voice can so easily show strain. With Florez there is no trace of it. This is the tenor who has shown us how to be expressive without the effort showing. He has had the good sense to largely stick to the bel canto repertoire in which he has no competitor. His understanding of this music goes deeper than understanding ‑it is a love affair, and one he has learnt to communicate to his listeners. And that too is effortless. Or so it sounds. But 1 fancy that in reality, this is a replay of the principle of the conjurer ‑the quickness of the hand (in his case, the voice) deceives the eye (ear). If this is right, it prompts the question ‑was deception ever so magical?

Three early Italian composers opened his Rome programme ~two of them, little known ‑Bononcini (1642 ‑ 1678) and Ciampi (1719 ‑ 1762). From the first came Ernesto’s aria from Gríselda, in its original, an acute test in elegance and eloquence for the castrato. Florez is amply blessed with both those styles as well as easy with the outrageous technical demands which Bononcini makes on the virtuoso castrato. How many times have you heard a trill sounding as though the tenor is trying to saw his voice. Not so Florez. His trills are easy and impressively relaxed and delivered with a flow, which moves the phrase forward; direction pointers rather than jolting interrupters.

This in turn illuminates what is perhaps Florez’s greatest attribute: once his melody is airborne, there is no grounding it. Grounding is a fault in pretty well all other tenors on today’s scene. But his sound is so perfectly crafted and focused, it reaches into eternity and carries listeners with it. Ethereal. That is evidently where the castrati were. And Juan Diego knows how to take a modern audience into that realm. Astonishing.

With Ciampi’s 1 tre cicísbel ridicoli (for m‑any years, wrongly attributed to Pergolesi) Florez lets us into one of his vocal secrets. This voice which soars with the ease of the lark is also powerfully supported from the chest. The high notes are approached from above (so no nasty scooping upwards) and only given their appropriate vocal colour “on arrival». He sings, not so much on the phrase as throuqh it.

This first group of early songs was completed from Piccinni’s coloratura number from Roland, sung by Medoro and dashed off with daring aplomb by Florez.

Three Rossini airs followed ‑all of them chamber songs from the composer’s final period. L’esule gave us a velvety legato in sharp contrast to the Piccinni sparkle. And here the conjurer pulled another trick out of his bag. He would introduce a crescendo into a phrase only to crown the climax with an unexpected subito piano. But what a piano! He knows that to sing piano requires more voice than to sing loudly. A promessa showed a sincere

involvement with the words.And just in case anyone was wondering about the size of his voice, he blew the entire audience out of their seats with the climax of Tirana alla spagnola.

Adriano’s aria, Queste desíre l’accíaro di morte from Il crociato in Egítto brought to an end the first part of the concert: declamatory in the recitative and a fine vehicle for the tenor’s fioratura in the aria.

Three operatic French airs opened the second part, the first, once again a perfect illustration of the Florez elegance of vocal line ‑Roméo’s Ah! Lève‑toí soíeil! from Gounod’s Roméo et juíliette; the second a most dignified delivery of Mylio’s recitative and aria, Vaínement ma bien‑aimée from Lalo’s Le Roi d’Yk. Only in Paris’s Au mont Ida trois Déesses (Offenbach’s La Belle Heléne) did Florez somehow get into the wrong stylistic mode: more the nonchalance of Verdi’s Duke of Mantova than the jokesy French operetta.

For the next group we move to what for me was the real highlight of the programme ‑three songs based on the zarzuela, the nearest Spanish music gets to the Musical. Altogether another test for a singer’s artistry. You could argue that the musical content here ís slight. Everything turns on the performer’s vocal charm. On record, Conchita Supervia is the supreme master of that art. Florez is worthy to stand alongside her.

These songs take us right back to the tenor’s beginnings. When he was growing up in Lima, his mother ran a pub, which in the evenings had live music. When the vocalist failed to turn up, mama would send upstairs for Juan Diego to come down and sing something. He sang everything from the Beatles, through to zarzuela and Donizetti. This gave him his first taste of the power of musical communication, for which he understood he was abundantly and naturally endowed. It didn’t take the pub’s clients long to begin to hope that the professional vocalist would not show up and Juan Diego be called down from the upstairs apartment.

By now it was clear that something had,to be done to nurture this amazing gift. A useful spell at the Curtis Institute eventually led to studies with Ernesto Palacio, the South American tenor, living in retirement and teaching in Milan. To this day, Maestro Palacio remains Florezs guru. When Daniela Barcelona heard the perfection of Florez’s breathing, she asked for an introduction to his teacher. The result is that Palacio remains maestro and agent for both singers.

José Padilla’s Princesita is among the best known of the zarzuelas. Florez here went into overdrive in the generosity of his delivery. josé Lacalle’s Anapola, though not strictly zarzuela is very much in that mould and certainly the best known number internationally in this repertoire. The generosity of the singer here was matched by the passionate audience applause. Further fun was provided with the showcase number from one of the last zarzuelas, El ultimo romantico (1928)

Allegro io son from Donizetti’s one‑act opera, Ríta, closed the printed programme: a worthy, sparkling romp to finish the evening.

Vincenzo Scalera was never less than adequate as piano accompaníst, though there were moments when he sounded routine.

Then began the encores. First, una furtíva lacrima in which Florez’s tears came out more furtive than Pavarotti’s. (Pavarottí never quite managed to keep this airborne.) Then, the expected and hoped‑for Florez war‑horse, Ah! Mes amís (Le Fille du régíment) with the nine high Cs flipped out with joyous ease. La Donn’è mobile was beautifully sung even if others with heavier voices have sung it better. And with an American recital tour imminent, the final

encore had a nod and assurance toward the Musica] wíth Be My Love. The audience, needless to say, were ready to accept that invitation!

Juan Diego Florez is not yet available on the National Health. He ought to be. His art is an astonishing matrimony of mind and physiology, as I have tried to show. Two hours of his song is therapeutic and so lífe‑enhancing as to add a minimum of five years to your life. Doctors and priests of the world you are fired. But no one should miss this Mass for Life. The celebrant is Juan Diego Florez.

Jack Buckley