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S & H Concert Review

Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti: Juan Diego Flórez, Philharmonia Orchestra, Riccardo Frizza, Royal Festival Hall, May 18th 2002. (ME)


It’s been quite a month for voices. For me, it began with John Mark Ainsley’s Orfeo, then there were two Matthias Goerne recitals followed closely by Quasthoff, and last night this display of bel canto fireworks from a singer who is bound to become more of a household name than any of the aforementioned. ‘Very few press tickets, tonight’ I was told at the desk, and this I found regrettable, since those who did not attend missed out on a remarkable concert, greeted with an almost – full standing ovation in which only a few curmudgeons such as myself and John Steane did not participate. Nevertheless, both he and I were mightily impressed by this tenor, still only 28 and already so complete an artist.

One had the sense that Juan Diego Flórez is filling an aching void, that left after Pavarotti, Domingo and their ilk, and one which cannot be filled by the likes of Russell Watson. Florez is the genuine article; he has a voice which is a God – given instrument of sublime beauty, his technique is astonishingly secure for so early a stage in his career, his particular vocal agility lends itself to brilliant show-stopping arias with stunning effect, he has a beguiling stage manner and noble bearing, is exceptionally handsome, and, most of all, he sings with wonderful taste and accuracy, phrasing the music with a refinement all to rarely heard in this, or indeed any other repertoire.

The programme was carefully designed to display all his talents to the greatest effect, with the arias sandwiched between performances of various overtures by the orchestra; it was a pity that they were condemned to perform only these lollipops, since the quality of the playing was so fine – however, it was obvious that most of the audience were just dozing through the instrumental pieces until their hero took the stage again. He began with ‘Vieni fra queste braccia’ from ‘La Gazza ladra,’ a most gracefully appropriate beginning to any recital (not that many other singers would be too eager to contemplate it) with its welcoming invitation and its reassuring melodic style. Apart from one or two moments when his line faded just a little at the centre, this was a wonderful performance; the rapid divisions held no terrors for him, he phrased the lines with the elegance and good taste which are the hallmarks of his singing, and conveyed the import of the words, especially at moments such as ‘Tu m’ inspirar…’ with real dramatic skill.

‘Deh tu m’assisti amore’ was sung with similar grace and style, the slow, quiet lines phrased with unaffected emotion and clarity, and it called forth another storm of applause from an already – besotted audience. However, even this paled by comparison with his three absolutely stunning pieces in the second half, ‘E Serbato…’ from Bellini’s ‘I Capuleti e I Montechi,’ ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima,’ and the brilliant final ‘Ah! Mes Amis, Quel Jour de fete’ from ‘La Fille du Regiment.’ The Bellini was a model of bel canto style, its fluency, beauty of tone and perfection of diction leaving nothing to be desired, with the diminuendo at ‘Ogni della Gioia del mio cor….’ as finely achieved as anything I have ever heard either on disc or in concert.

‘Una Furtiva Lagrima,’ the best – known aria in the programme, was simply stunning; if Caruso sang it better then I would be surprised. Florez gave it a freshness, a forwardness in the tone, an eagerness without overstatement, such as I have never before heard, and his elegance of phrasing and fluid legato line were just perfection – it’s one thing to phrase ‘Una furtive lagrima’ with elegance, quite another to bring the same finesse and emotion to’ Negl’occhi suoi spunto,’ but he did, and more. This was singing of absolute technical mastery, of dramatic conviction and above all, wonderful taste and accuracy; ‘Bravissimo!’ yelled someone even before the music had ended, and I would defy anyone to suggest that such a reaction was undeserved.

Florez’ stunning technique was finally displayed in all its glory in ‘Ah! Mes Amis,’ and you could not wish for a more rousing finale; he made the top Cs right in the middle without apparent strain, whilst still phrasing the music with elegance and grace, his dazzling, bright high notes not mere vehicles of display but a part of the whole in which sweetness, tenderness and perfect diction were also much in evidence; his French is wonderful, too, with a real bite to the enunciation. His singing was greeted with a standing ovation and tumultuous cheering, and he rewarded this with three encores, the final Rossini aria revealing over and over again the diamond – like brilliance of his tone, the seamless accuracy of his coloratura and the elegance of his phrasing. A truly exciting evening.


Melanie Eskenazi

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