Yesterday afternoon saw a wonderful event in Carnegie Hall. Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian tenor, had the audience exploding in joy. The audience was entirely right.
Flórez is a bel canto tenor, and he sang a bel canto recital—pretty much. His pianist was Vincenzo Scalera, an Italian-American veteran in the opera world. The program consisted of bel canto songs and arias—heavier on the arias than usual. But Flórez also took some liberties.
What I mean is, he sang a few arias that he would not necessarily sing on the opera stage. These are arias that are not perfectly suited to his voice. They belong to roles that he would not ordinarily be assigned. Those roles are too big for him, vocally.
But in a recital—with a pianist, rather than an orchestra—what the heck?
The tenor was in excellent, excellent voice. The voice was seamless, from top to bottom.
After one aria outside the bel canto repertoire, a man behind me said to his companion, “He could sing the Prize Song, if he wanted.” (The Prize Song is a heldentenor aria, from Wagner’s Meistersinger.)
Flórez began his recital with two songs by Rossini. Then he sang arias by Donizetti and Verdi. I will give you some generalities.
The tenor was in excellent, excellent voice. The voice was seamless, from top to bottom. (Flórez demonstrated this early, when he went from a low C to a high C, two octaves away.) He sang with a sure sense of style. And his “quick work,” let’s say—the florid stuff—was exemplary.
You don’t just fall out of bed with this technique, you know. You work on it, you develop it. Juan Diego Flórez is a disciplined and smart singer, not just a talented one. He has earned his success.
I would like to say something about his Italian: it’s excellent. But shouldn’t it be, given that he is a native Spanish speaker? No, no. Precisely because those languages are so close, native Spanish speakers often fail to adapt to Italian pronunciation. They sing their Italian Spanishly, so to speak. Flórez, not at all. He sings pure Italian.
The worst part of the recital’s first half was “Una furtiva lagrima,” the aria from Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. How can this be? Flórez is one of the most famous singers of it in history! Yes, but, untethered from the opera at large, untethered from a conductor, untethered from everything, he sang the aria personally: in a slow, soupy manner. The aria was distorted.
But it was still beautiful, I must confess.
The best part of the recital’s first half, probably, was “Fra poco a me ricovero,” from the same composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor. I wrote in my program, “A-1.” Yes. Flórez gave a clinic in the singing of that aria.
Throughout the evening, he bantered with the audience, wittily and charmingly. (He did not overdo the banter, which was key.) At one point, he looked up to the furthest reaches of the auditorium and said, “Can you hear me?” It turned out he meant his singing. He said, “Singers can sing, but they cannot speak.”
So true! This has been a complaint of mine for years. Singers, and other musicians, make it their business to communicate to an audience by sound. Yet when they speak to an audience, they are often inaudible or indistinct. This renders their speaking in vain. So strange.
The second half of the recital began with a relative rarity, a song by Massenet: “Ouvre tes yeux bleus.” A beautiful song it is, too (and beautifully sung). Then came the two arias—tenor arias—from Massenet’s Manon.
About “En fermant les yeux,” a.k.a. “Le Rêve,” I have a complaint. It is similar to my complaint about “Una furtiva lagrima.” It was a little loose and slidey. It could have used more of a pulse, a touch more firmness. But still . . .
I will now tell you a secret: I have never much liked the famous, beloved aria from Faust (Gounod): “Salut! demeure chaste et pure.” I have heard all the greats sing it, either on record or in person. Never liked it. But I liked it from Flórez, a lot. He shaped it superbly.
His “Pourquoi me réveiller,” from Werther (Massenet), was a powerhouse. A powerhouse, from a bel canto tenor? Yes—if not in sound, in impact. He has the canniness to pull it off. And the printed program ended with “Che gelida manina,” from La bohème (Puccini). It was perfectly—let me repeat: perfectly—sculpted. And the emotions, overt and covert, were just right.
“I Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” sang Eileen Farrell. So too, Flórez has the right to sing virtually anything he wants.
Flórez must have sung, what? Fifteen, twenty high C’s in the course of the afternoon? He could have gone on for many more, too.
The printed program finished, a “second concert” began. Flórez came out with a guitar, just as Victoria de los Angeles, the late, great Spaniard, used to do. He sat on a stool and sang a succession of Spanish songs (Spanish-language songs): “Bésame Mucho” and so on. He was stylish, humorous, and affecting. He did not take the songs too seriously; neither did he take them too lightly. Moreover, he knows how to play the guitar, straight up.
Some Latin Americans in the audience were rowdy. Flórez’s rapport with them was part of what made the afternoon so enjoyable.
The pianist, Mr. Scalera, returned, to help the tenor with some more encores—beginning with “Ah! mes amis,” the “nine C’s” aria from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment. There are indeed nine high C’s in this aria. From Flórez, at this point in the proceedings, they were a little—a little—harsh. But still . . .
By the way, Flórez must have sung, what? Fifteen, twenty high C’s in the course of the afternoon? He could have gone on for many more, too.
Then came a song associated with Mario Lanza, “Be My Love.” Flórez sang it with great affection and beauty. At the end, he handed a flower to a wonderful lady in the first row: Helen Friedman (a friend of mine). Then came “Granada,” that anthem-like tenor number. There was some more giving away of flowers (though not to Helen). When the tenor sang the word “flores,” or “flowers,” he pointed to himself, Flórez.
He was not done yet. To the gratification of a giddy audience, he launched into the tenor anthem, “Nessun dorma,” from Puccini’s Turandot. Was it small of voice? Yeah, a bit. But it was also great. And Flórez encouraged the audience to act as the “popolo di Pekino,” the people of Peking, humming along. They did, gladly.
This was an afternoon of first-rate singing and good feeling. Sometimes, the public gets its money’s worth, and more.