Juan Diego Flórez: Exceptional Voice But Not Right for Les Pêcheurs de Perles

SpainSpain Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Teatro Real Orchestra and Chorus, Daniel Oren (conductor), Madrid Teatro Real. 31.3.2013 (JMI)

Concert version

Nadir: Juan Diego Flórez
Leila: Patrizia Ciofi
Zurga: Mariusz Kwiecien/Luca Grassi
Nourabad: Roberto Tagliavini



This opera by Georges Bizet demands a star tenor; Alfredo Kraus was for me an unforgettable first Nadir. Without an outstanding singer in the role, the opera loses a great deal of interest. Having been in the main opera repertoire in the 1950s and ’60s, today Les Pêcheurs de Perles has almost become a rarity, only programmed when an exceptional tenor decides to sing Nadir.

It is the participation of Juan Diego Flórez that explains the presence of The Pearl Fishers at Teatro Real. The Peruvian tenor has become one of the most well-known singers in recent years and a popular idol, which is rather unusual for a light tenor.

It is 17 years since Flórez’s debut in Pesaro, and he is unrivaled as a Rossini light tenor. One might have expected that his voice would have developed further and that he would now be in a position to handle a lyric repertoire, but Mother Nature is capricious, and Flórez is still a light tenor whose endeavors to move to a heavier repertoire have not been fully successful. Arturo, Il Duca di Mantova, Nemorino and now Nadir are attempts by him to expand his roles, but the problem is that he can only do so if the result is as noteworthy as one expects from such a gifted tenor.

I attended the final concert of The Pearl Fishers, and I’ve been part of discussions among opera lovers on Flórez’s performance. To his fans he is superb, even if he is sleeping. For fans of other artists, it seems that their criticism of his Nadir is but a means to praise their own idols. God bless passion in opera, but sometimes it is a real problem! Passion blinds the eyes and deafens the ears of enthusiasts, who often see the virtues of their idols increasing the more they criticize others. The big divo followers had the chance in March to attend two operas in concert at Teatro Real, with two noted performers and plenty of worshippers. I’m referring to Edita Gruberova in Roberto Devereux and Flórez in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. The final score was a draw although both sides claim victory: at both concerts the final ovations lasted 12 minutes.

That Juan Diego Flórez is an exceptional singer is obvious: not everyone can reach this level of popularity with a repertoire that is mostly unfamiliar to the average opera goer. But I think that in his exceptionality lies his problem. How many years can he continue to be a phenomenon with this repertoire? No wonder that Flórez tries again and again to expand it, but his attempts to move into more lyrical roles have not been what we expect from him. His voice’s suitablility for Nadir raised some doubts: his singing had the usual quality, but one could see in the first act that he was uncomfortable. Nadir demands a lyric tenor and Flórez is not there yet. His voice is lighter than Alfredo Kraus’s, the last true lyric tenor in the character. To the other idol worshippers I will say that the same goes for Edita Gruberova singing Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. It is not a problem of how either sings but one of choosing the right repertoire for their voices.

Someone in the theater asked me whether any other tenor today can sing Nadir better than Flórez. That’s not the point, since his reference should only be himself and not the others, but I will say that Joseph Calleja seems to me better suited to the character. I also believe that Javier Camarena and Celso Albelo are very valid alternatives, which is not to detract from Flórez’s performance.

I have to say that Patrizia Ciofi as Leila mostly stole the show. Her soprano is not particularly attractive, poor in timbre and very weak in the lower ranges, but even with a rather mediocre voice, she sings with a conviction and expressiveness that is only found in very gifted artists.

The character of Zurga was initially sung by Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who performed the duet Au fond du temple saint with gusto and beauty. Without warning he withdrew before the end of the first act, and a different singer took the oath from Leila, which caused some surprise in the audience. At the beginning of the second act it was announced that Kwiecien was unwell, and Luca Grassi took his place. He did well, and he saved the concert.

Roberto Tagliavini was well-suited to the role of Nourabad, better in the middle than at the upper register.

Daniel Oren, who conducted this opera last year at Salerno, puts on quite a show from the podium: his gestures are excessive and his fussing and jumps are worth of an athletics competition. If the gestures were in line with the quality he would be the best conductor in the world. His reading was good, if a little flat in the last act, and he drew a solid performance from the orchestra. Once again the choir was excellent.

Teatro Real was sold out. The audience was what you can expect when a true divo is on stage. The aria Je crois entendre encore received an exceptionally long ovation of 95 seconds, while Leila’s aria, Comme autrefois, had the audience applauding for 63 seconds.

José Mª. Irurzun