Juan Diego Flórez: A Memorable London Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Juan Diego Flórez in Recital: Juan Diego Flórez (tenor), Vincenzo Scalera (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 24.4.2013. (JPr)

Donaudy: O del mio amato ben
Quand’il tuo diavolo nacque
Vaghissima Sembianza
Handel: ‘Where’er you Walk’ from Semele
‘I must with speed amuse her’ from Semele
Meyerbeer: ‘Plus blanche que la blanche hermine’ from Les Huguenots
Verdi: ‘Je Veux Encore Entendre Ta Voix’ from Jérusalem
Tosti: Ideale
Vorrei morire
L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra
Luna: ‘Paxarin tù que vuelas’ from La picara molinera
Guerrero: ‘Flor roja’ from Los gavilanes
Simeón: ‘Jota’ from El trust de los tenorios
Donizetti: ‘Come uno spirto angelico’ from Roberto Devereux

After his evening with his ‘friends’ three days before (review) Juan Diego Flórez returned to the platform in the Barbican Hall for a solo recital with piano. This is the type of event that puts any singer under the closest scrutiny because without any costume or production to hide behind they are at their most exposed. Flórez first came to the London public’s attention with a Rosenblatt Recital in 2001 at St John’s, Smith Square. He subsequently stepped up to much larger venues such as the Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall, attracting increasingly larger audiences as his reputation grew.

A packed audience welcomed him enthusiastically to the Barbican Hall before he even sang a note. That there were a few empty seats, could this perhaps have been due either to the ticket prices (£25 to £65) or the unfamiliar programme for these sort of ‘superstar’ recitals? Though one must give him credit for not going down the populist route so familiar from the Raymond Gubbay big name opera recitals that are put on from time to time on the Southbank. He included several rare items such as examples of Donaudy’s Arie di stile antico, less familiar Tosti songs, some twentieth-century zarzuela (an operetta-like genre only really popular in the Spanish-speaking world) and arias from some rather obscure operas, such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Verdi’s Jérusalem and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. I stand by everything I wrote about his voice in my earlier review and it took most of the first half of this recital for his voice to be at its freest and most flexible and it was really only with Tosti’s vernacular Parted – a plaintive melody that is rather like Brief Encounter in song – that he started to release his inner Mario Lanza and the romance he was singing about – with impeccable English diction – connected with me and, I suspect, with increasingly more of his audience.

Elsewhere, it was a triumph of style and technique over musical material. Throughout the Donaudy, Meyerbeer and Verdi as well as two arias from Handel’s Semele (including the instantly recognisable ‘Where’er you Walk’), his tone was refined, elegant, clean and focused and his famous top register – his current money-notes – was totally secure, even if the top notes were not exactly ringing. If he has a fault, it is that he has a tendency to approach everything in exactly the same way. The musicianship and placement of the notes come first, creating pictures by using words second – but he too rarely appeared to ‘live’ what he is singing, at least before the interval. I accept many will argue that is his job on the opera stage and not on the recital platform. His breath control gives him a wonderful head voice and messa di voce and his control of the arc of any vocal line was impeccable. His delicate control of ‘E il pianger m’è si caro, Che di pianto sol nutro il cor’ during his very first Donaudy song was astonishing. Perhaps the only time in the whole evening that he seemed less-than-superhuman was with Handel’s ‘I must with speed amuse her’ when his usually attentive and admirable accompanist, Vincenzo Scalera, made his first significant contribution and his rampant tempo was something even such an adroit singer as Flórez found difficult to cope with.

Juan Diego Flórez is Peruvian so it is perhaps not a surprise that he would have enough of the famed hot-blooded Latin-American in him to connect with the zarzuela songs and certainly Guerrero’s ‘Flor roja’ made me ponder what he could do with Don José’s own ‘Flower’ aria. He was imperious throughout Donizetti’s ‘Come uno spirto angelico’ from Roberto Devereux, although he had to overcome some premature audience adulation before launching into the lugubrious cabaletta.

That was the official musical programme over but Flórez is known to be generous with his encores and his audience – many of whom were standing and applauding – were not going to leave anytime soon and they were given four extra items. The first, ‘M’apparì tutt’amo’ from Martha,he introduced with a genial ‘Thank you very much!’, the second needed no announcement and was his signature aria, ‘Ah, mes amis’ from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. Yes those nine high Cs as an encore – what sheer extravagance. How did he do? Well how do you expect from what I have written – it was sheer perfection.

When he returned to the platform one last time, his pianist, Vincenzo Scalera, launched into a song but Flórez had a change of mind and stopped him. Charmingly he told us ‘I would like to dedicate this next piece to Julia, my wife, who is here’ and how it would be her birthday the next day. Romeo’s balcony aria ‘Ah, leve-toi soleil’ from the Gounod version was that ‘piece’ and was suitably full of highly personal ardour and passion. I once heard the late Alfredo Kraus sing it and clearly his mantle as the bel canto tenor of his generation passed to Flóreza long time ago, though ultimately he might yet develop a much broader repertoire than that legendary singer.

Juan Diego Flórez seems a good man, he is undoubtedly an artist at the height of his considerable powers – as this memorable recital return to London proved.

Jim Pritchard

For future events at the Barbican visit www.barbican.org.uk.