Juan Diego Flórez and His Friends in a Barbican Gala.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Juan Diego Flórez & Friends: London Symphony Orchestra, Guillermo García Calvo (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 21.4.2013. (JPr)

Juan Diego Flórez tenor
Joyce DiDonato mezzo-soprano
Julia Novikova soprano
Marco Caria baritone

Rossini:La Cenerentola, Overture, ‘Tutto è deserto’, and ‘Nacqui all’Affanno’
Il barbiere di Siviglia, Overture
Meyerbeer: Il crociato in Egitto, ‘Popoli dell’Egitto’
Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore, ‘Come Paride vezzoso’, ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ and ‘Venti scudi’
Delibes: Lakmé, ‘Prendre le dessin’
Gounod: Roméo et Julietta, ‘Je veux vivre’
Bellini: I Capuletti ed i Montecchi, ‘Se Romeo’
Verdi: I vespri siciliani, Overture
Rigoletto, ‘E’ il sol dell’anima’, ‘Addio, addio’, ‘Parmi veder’, and ‘Un di…. Bella figlia’

Certainly the starriest Opera Gala I have been at for some time, and what a choice for concertgoers with this at the Barbican and Jonas Kaufmann singing some Verdi and Wagner warhorses across town at the Festival Hall. Kaufmann is a known quantity to me but I do not recall ever having heard Juan Diego Flórez live before. This was the first of a three-event weeklong residency with a recital with piano and masterclass to follow, that presumably he is fitting in with rehearsals for the forthcoming performances of La donna del lago at Covent Garden. His love interest in that rarely-performed Rossini work will be Joyce DiDonato and so it was probably not too difficult to persuade her to join him as one of his ‘friends’, especially at the end of the week where it has been announced that she will lead the community singing at this year’s Last Night of the Proms. Nevertheless to have one of the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos in what was essentially a supporting role was quite a coup. And it was not only these two; they were also joined by soprano Julia Novikova, baritone Marco Caria and the somewhat reduced ensemble of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Juan Diego Flórez displayed a pleasant, eager-to-please, stage manner somewhat reminiscent of José Carreras at the height of his powers. Although like all the others he had his moments to show-off, he seemed equally happy to share the spotlight with his colleagues during some duets and quartets. After his considerable success on the world’s opera stages with Donizetti’s ‘Ah! mes amis’ from La fille du régiment, there were the inevitable comparisons with a previous ‘King of the High Cs’, Luciano Pavarotti, but Floréz’s voice is lighter, brighter and higher than his ever was … and so his record company eventually branded him ‘King of the High Ds’!

This is the problem the tenor now faces, I believe, as there was much evidence that, now having turned 40, his voice is leaving the difficult, high-lying, bel canto roles behind for the most lyrical ones in the tenore spinto repertoire, such as The Duke (Rigoletto), Alfredo, Rodolfo, Cavaradossi and possibly even, Don José. However opera managements are not short of singers for these roles – though it is more a matter of quantity over quality – but there are very few tenors capable of singing some of the parts in which Flórez has made his name, so he is probably stuck singing them for the foreseeable future.

Do not get me wrong, this was a splendid concert that well deserved the standing ovation it received from substantial sections of the packed Barbican Hall. However, the demanding aria ‘Popoli dell’Egitto’ was a triumph of technique over style or substance. This Meyerbeer nonsense required Flórez to ping several of his trademark top notes and it was clear that there is more effort involved in bringing them off then probably he once needed. Even if they were not things of beauty, they were still precise, powerful and secure. Things improved with a wonderfully expressive, ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, an ardent and impassioned ‘Fantasy’ from Lakmé and all the appropriate elements of ardour and seduction he brought to Verdi’s Duke. None of these require his famed vocal pyrotechniques and demonstrated a splendidly agile voice with a warm, elegant legato and a mellifluous sense of phrasing.

Joyce DiDonato nearly stole the show from Flórez with two coloratura showpieces, Cinderella’s ‘Nacqui all’Affanno’ and ‘Se Romeo’ from Bellini’s I Capuletti ed i Montecchi. Her voice is perfectly even, from lowest to highest note, she always sings with fluent command of the florid writing and a tremendous ability to heighten the dramatic tension throughout everything she sings. Her gaudy multi-coloured dress for the first half seemed to be a ‘dry run’ for her Last Night of the Proms appearance but I admired her more sober dark, rehearsal room, clothes for her trouser-role Romeo after the interval.

Marco Caria and Julia Novikova were rather in the shadow of their more famous colleagues. Though Caria did nothing wrong as a boorish Belcore I have heard better. Novikova made more of Juliet’s waltz song ‘Je veux vivre’, and gave it a charming brittleness. Nevertheless, soprano and baritone made solid contributions to their respective duets with Flórez – and together with him and DiDonato – in the great Rigoletto Act III quartet, as well as, two hugely enjoyable encores, ‘O Sole Mio’ and ‘Libiamo’ from La traviata.

Guillermo García Calvo replaced the originally announced conductor for this opera gala and did as well as could be expected in guiding the London Symphony Orchestra through unfamiliar music on what I suspect was minimal rehearsal time. He did seem willing to lead the orchestra more than most do in these circumstances and only occasionally indulged his singers by pausing for them to catch their breath. The orchestra’s moments to shine came in overtures from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Verdi’s I vespri siciliani both staples of these sort of evenings, but these never rose above the routine – do they ever?

The printed programme did include an inserted slip about the new conductor but there were noticeable further diversions, though minimal, from what was listed and also introduced by Richard Bratby’s informative essay about the music. Do the performers never see what is given out? There was no word from the platform about why the Overture from Guillaume Tell was changed for a different Rossini one or about any of the other changes made to what we read we would hear. This left some less-experienced audience members evidently bemused and flicking through their programme instead of listening. A few words from someone would be enough to clear this up.

Jim Pritchard

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