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Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti: Juan Diego Flórez (tenor). Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Barbican Hall London 12. 7.2008 (MMB)


Norma - Overture,
I puritani – A te, o cara.

Semiramide – Overture,
La donna del lago – Pace non trovo... Tu sorda ai miei lamenti, Guillaume Tell – Overture, Asil héréditaire.

Lucrezia Borgia – Partir degg’io... T’amo qual s’ama un angelo,
Don Pasquale – Overture,
La favorite – La maitresse du roi... Ange si pur,
La fille du régiment – Overture, Amici miei.

Photo © Decca / Johannes Ifkovits

Juan Diego Flórez is the bel canto tenor of choice, admired for his interpretations of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, his voice unrivalled in this kind of repertoire. The concert was sold out nearly a year in advance, and it also marked the launch in the UK of his new, excellent work Bel Canto Spectacular, released by Decca on 7th July.

The evening began with the Overture to Bellini’s Norma by the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera under the leadership of Carlo Rizzi, a conductor who has worked extensively with them and who has been their musical director twice. Norma was an interesting opening but the fabulous Overture to Rossini’s Semiramide, a little later, caused considerably more impact. Rizzi had the cellos placed in the middle, flanked by the violins to his left and the violas to the right. This proved to be an excellent arrangement throughout the concert but particularly for the Overtures of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, before the interval, and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, in the second half, mostly due to the fact that they both open with cello solos: a single instrument in Donizetti’s piece and five in Rossini’s.

Flórez’s first appearance was with the beautiful A te, o cara from Bellini’s last opera I puritani, a deceptively simple aria but actually a piece of extreme difficulty, requiring outstanding breath control and legato, two qualities that Flórez has in abundance. He sang Bellini’s exquisite melody beautifully, clearly articulating every word, delivering the piece’s intense lyricism.  Rossini’s La donna del lago, was sung in a slightly more subdued manner than usual, a little toned down in the highest notes, and the singer had to work harder than normal to deliver it with his customary liquidity and apparent ease. Asil héréditaire from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell was however a nearly perfect rendition with those ringing high notes so typical of bel canto.

Carlo Rizzi is a sympathetic conductor of singers, who perfectly understands bel canto as much more than “beautiful singing” - the orchestra never overwhelmed the singer’s voice and consistently offered the perfect cushioning to
Flórez’s crystalline tone. There was also a warm, friendly relationship apparent between conductor and soloist, which undoubtedly contributed to the success of the evening, particularly during the difficult second half that was to follow.

After the interval,
Flórez returned with an aria from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, an opera he has yet to sing on stage. It is a sorrowing melody, designed to show a grieving character, with legato phrases and trips into the vocal stratosphere. And here, it really became obvious that Flórez was unwell. He appeared to have to work harder, often leaning for support on the bars of the conductor’s podium, making a considerable effort with notes that usually seem to emerge out of nowhere when he opens his mouth to sing. In spite of the noticeable strain, his rendition was still superb and I can think of many tenors who would like to sing like this at their best, let alone when they are feeling ill. But Flórez is a perfectionist and he was visibly distressed for not singing to his own extremely high standards. He retired to his dressing-room followed by roaring applause, which he acknowledged with gratitude. The orchestra launched into Donizetti’s Overture to Don Pasquale and when it finished, it seemed the moment everybody feared had arrived. The public, the orchestra and Rizzi waited for a long time but Flórez did not reappear. Instead, we had an employee of the Barbican calling the conductor in. Rizzi returned a few minutes later with the tenor. Flórez addressed the public with his customary, unassuming, kind attitude, making light of his problem, humorously declaring: “Global warming is now also affecting tenors!” This brought many laughs, and he continued to explain in colourful words and gestures that he had a “frog” in his throat; a build-up of “phlegm”; but would keep singing and simply “see how it goes”.

He delivered the final two pieces with unquestionable professionalism and a near stoic quality, visibly feeling guilty that he could not sing them with his usual brilliance. The aria La maitresse du roi from Donizetti’s La favorite, another opera he has yet to sing on stage, is a fiendishly difficult piece that he carried out due to his fabulous technique and indomitable determination. His signature piece from La fille du
régiment, the aria Amici miei (here in its Italian buffa version rather than the better known French opéra comique) was for Flórez’s standards not so good; to most tenors still near perfection. He managed to bring out the famous nine high Cs, shortening the length of a few, straining to hit one but courageously delivering the full aria. He was shaking his head disapprovingly at himself in the end, but he need not have worried. He felt obliged to give an encore; not the one he had planned from L’elisir d’amore, with all the variations as in his latest CD, he explained with his usual light, unassuming good humour but instead he was going to sing the cabaletta from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia because and to quote his own words “it had many notes so it didn’t matter so much...’ This won him even more appreciation and one really must admire his determination in not disappointing the public.

Sadly, he was forced to cancel the CD signature session that the Barbican had organised for after the performance, as he obviously needed to retire and rest. However, we all left happy after brave, wonderful concert by a gifted tenor. One has to admire him for his artistry but also for his refusal to give up when most would have stopped and handed the rest of the concert to the orchestra and conductor. If anything, Juan Diego Flórez left the Barbican with an army of even more faithful fans than before.

Margarida Mota-Bull

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