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Seen and Heard Recital Review



Mozart, Rossini, Arias, Morales, Bellini, Donizetti: Juan Diego Flórez (tenor) Vincenzo Scalera (piano)  Barbican Hall 09.12.2006.   (ME)  



Juan Diego Flórez, for those who have yet to encounter him and who may be discouraged by the frankly daft response to him by some critics who should know better (i.e. suggesting that he should stick to Puccini (!): stressing his Peruvian background as though he were the first singer ever to come from there  - Luigi Alva, anyone? – and instead of commenting on the wonderful accuracy and taste of his singing, filing up paragraphs with guff about how many jewels all the ‘expatriates’ in the audience were wearing) is, in my opinion and that of John Steane,one of the truly great talents of our time: I could not put it better than Steane (who could?) when he referred to his ‘union of scrupulous means and brilliantly effective ends’ and his ‘marvellous fluency and clarity of articulation… diamond-bright tone also capable of sweetness.’ These qualities were very much in evidence in this recital, remarkably so given that illness had forced Flórez to cancel his Carnegie Hall debut earlier in the week, and he was still not fully recovered.


For  a singer who is closely associated with the bel canto repertoire to begin a recital with a group of Mozart, is daring indeed, and he risks all the usual nonsense which was gloriously exemplified by a the comment of a gentleman seated behind me – ‘Somehow not truly Mozartean, don’t you know – rather nineteenth – century I feel.’ Balderdash, sir: despite the slightly flat pitching at the very start of ‘Dies Bildnis,’ and one or two moments of (understandable) strain during ‘Il mio Tesoro,’ this was Mozart singing as we should be able to hear it, but so rarely do  - sung completely cleanly, that is, without any of the annoying aspirates which 95% of tenors use to help them through the divisions; phrased elegantly; with real feeling for the words, yet entirely lacking in any mangling for effect; beautifully shaded in tone quality; linguistically sharp and idiomatic. Given his ailment it was hardly surprising that he substituted ‘Ah! lo veggio’ (Così)  with ‘Si spande il sole in faccia’ (‘Il Re Pastore’) but he still gave a breathtaking account of this all too rarely heard piece, the reason for its infrequent airing being of course that most tenors just can’t make the notes.


Rarity also featured in his Rossini group, although more familiar territory for him: ‘L’esule’ was one of the composer’s ‘sins of old age,’ the poignant music and words telling the tale of an exile pining for his native Genoa; it was beautifully sung, eschewing any yielding to the temptation of cloying sentimentality, with an especially fine turn at ‘la Patria mia ell’ė.’ The florid ‘intesi, ah, tutto intesi’ from Il turco in Italia gave Flórez plenty of opportunity to show off that diamond bright tone as well as the dramatic power of his singing and his ability to characterize a recitative.


Peruvian songs began the second half, fascinatingly in the work of Rosa Morales, an important figure in the musical life of Peru whose compositions include many elements of folk music and whose style is so attuned to the voice that it is surprising that more singers do not give her a try. The high point here was ‘Hasta la guitarra llora,’ with its achingly romantic quality and variety of emotion, both of which Flórez brought out to perfection, especially in ‘Tu representas las alas, Y yo las playas del mar ‘(you are like the waves, and I the beaches of the sea) and the lightly ironic ending.


A Bellini group showed that even with a chest infection, this is the leading ‘bel canto’ singer of today – it was all there, from beauty of tone to exact phrasing and shiveringly lovely high notes, most obviously in the challenging ‘La ricordanza’ with its high Romanticism which still manages to retain some bite in the sentiments and cadences of the music; ‘Ah! quant’era in quell’ora il morir caro!’ (oh, how sweet it would have been to die in that hour!’) was meltingly phrased and sent the audience into ecstasies, not for the first or last time in the evening. The scheduled programme ended with Donizetti’s  ‘Linda!...Si ritirò’ from Linda di Chamounix and gave further demonstration of the treat which New York had missed: this was singing of the most intense dramatic power, finesse in phrasing and sensitivity in language – anyone doubting this singer’s prowess would only have to hear that wonderful diminuendo at ‘la nostra Guerra avrà’ (our battles will have an end) when it is so much easier to go for the ‘big tenor bow-wow,’ to know that this is a voice in a thousand.


Vincenzo Scalera was a collaborative, tasteful and sensitive accompanist - none of which epithets usually come to mind when considering the pianists in such recitals, and it was clear that he played a large part in ensuring that the less-than-100%-fit singer survived the evening. Not only did Flórez do so, but returned to give three superb encores, an ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ which displayed his wonderful taste, diction and phrasing, an ‘Ah! mes Amis’ (was he mad, I asked myself?) where his command of the high C and his excellent French were undiminished, and best of all a ‘La Donna è Mobile’ which Pavarotti in his prime could not have bettered, in its joyful bounce, its linguistic colour, its agility and above all that sense of the singer snapping at the heels of the words almost as if he wanted to consume them. Great singing, and appropriately rewarded by a standing ovation.


Melanie Eskenazi



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)