Features

Juan Diego Flórez

TRISTAN KRAFT pays tribute to the Peruvian tenor, whose musical flair and mastery of the bel canto style will be recognized this year with an OPERA NEWS Award.

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Photographed by Beth Bergman as Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met, 2006
© Beth Bergman 2014
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Juan Diego Flórez's voice is like the engine in a Porsche 911; when you hear it, you know you're in the presence of something finely tuned and luxurious. It doesn't show strain — in fact, it sounds better in high gear. It navigates tight, winding turns just as beautifully as long, open stretches. Best of all, it has an unfailing reliability, making it a comforting thing to behold. One never thinks about what it can't do, only what it could do next.

The first time you hear Flórez's voice, you note the controlled precision of his legato phrasing, the nonchalant way he nails a high C (or E) and the electricity he adds to recitative and ensemble singing; watching him, you note how comfortable he looks onstage and how attentive he is to the audience. The tenth time you hear his voice, you notice that the performance is every bit as impeccable as the first nine. His unshakable onstage confidence has a cumulative effect, creating a concoction of fervor and relaxation: when Flórez performs, audiences know they are in the presence of a true virtuoso. 

Flórez's career was in high gear from the beginning. After graduating from Peru's National Conservatory (which, he is not shy about saying, he joined to become a pop star), the tenor studied at the Curtis Institute and Music Academy of the West. His professional debut came in 1996 at Pesaro's Rossini Opera Festival, when he was twenty-three. Four months later, he made his debut at La Scala, and by 2002, he had made his Met debut, in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Since then, Met audiences have had the pleasure of hearing him in La Cenerentola, Don Pasquale, L'Italiana in Algeri, La Fille du Régiment, La Sonnambula, Le Comte Ory and L'Elisir d'Amore

When Flórez sang Count Almaviva for the company in 2006–07, it was in a new Bartlett Sher production of Barbiere. A 2007 Live in HD recording, with Joyce DiDonato as Rosina and Peter Mattei as Figaro, preserves one of the liveliest bel canto performances in recent memory. In this performance, Flórez delivers "Ecco ridente" and the optional (because it's so difficult) "Cessa di più resistere" to the audience as much as to Rosina; the arias are tremulous, lucid and affecting moments. This is one of Flórez's trademarks — injecting moments of hair-raising, real emotion into otherwise silly plots. Heard on a 2006 live recording of Don Pasquale in Zurich, Flórez delivers the first half of "Com'è gentile" offstage, and the audience searches for the source of his voice, as Norina does the same. When he appears, he looks as stylish as he sounds. He sings the phrase "pace, mistero, amor" in a sweet pianissimo, and his voice melts on the phrase "si strugge di desir." The result makes the rest of Don Pasquale practically optional; Flórez is giving us a love song that is altogether timeless — it could be Shakespeare's Romeo in the garden, but it could just as easily be Julio Iglesias. 

Flórez's live performances are every bit as precise and delightful as his work on recording. The 2010 revival of Laurent Pelly's Fille du Régiment production, starring Flórez and Diana Damrau, stands out as one of the most thrilling nights I've had at the Met; it is an unusual and welcome thing to laugh out loud constantly at the opera. Flórez, who so often plays princes and kings with convincing poise, romped out onstage wearing lederhosen; he had the audience firmly in his grasp before he had uttered a phrase. The slapstick and timing between Flórez and Damrau, his Marie, created a frenetic energy in the audience. Then, just when you expected to keep laughing, Flórez performed "Pour me rapprocher de Marie," falling to his knees as he sang the final phrase ("rather than give up loving her!"), recklessness and anguish in his voice. The audience seemed stunned, perhaps at finding such nuanced, believable emotion in the middle of an uproarious opéra comique. And let's not overlook "Ah! mes amis," with its nine (sometimes eighteen) high Cs, which put the tenor's name in headlines in February 2007, when Flórez broke the seventy-four-year ban on solo encores at La Scala. "On the day of the performance," Flórez said in a 2008 interview with OPERA NEWS, "the artistic director told me, 'Listen, do what you want.' … The next day, it was in all the newspapers — 'A Tradition Ended.' I thought, what's going on here? They were calling me even from soccer magazines, asking me if it felt like making a goal." 

This quote illustrates an important aspect of Flórez the performer. I don't read any selfishness in it, rather Flórez's proven, uncanny ability to be in sync with the audience. That night, the fans sitting in La Scala wanted to hear "Ah! mes amis" again, and Flórez delivered. For Flórez is the tenor operagoers have been clamoring to hear. By performing a regimen of light tenor roles, he has not only preserved his voice for them but reintroduced repertoire — Le Comte Ory and La Donna del Lago, to say nothing of Matilde di Shabran and Zelmira — that had been waiting for a voice like his. 

Today, staunch opera-lovers are known to complain that the connection between stars and audience is not so strong as it once was. In Flórez's case, it seems likely that many, if not all, of the tenor's artistic decisions are made for the benefit of the audience. Time after time, he will slowly make his way to the lip of the stage during a solo, because to him, arias seem not to be a part of any production. They are soliloquies, and they are meant for us. During the long applause that follows, we can often see him smile to himself. And smile he should, for the success of opera depends on performers like Flórez, who are generous with their talent and charisma, who earn their connection with the audience, and who make opera undeniably fun. spacer 

TRISTAN KRAFT

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4