mon 26/09/2022

Juan Diego Flórez, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Juan Diego Flórez, Royal Festival Hall

Juan Diego Flórez, Royal Festival Hall

An audience on fire with delight despite a conspicuous absence of pyrotechnics

We’ve all seen singers go wrong. Forgetting words, missing entries, skipping verses – it happens often enough, and is generally cause for little more than some awkward laughter and a second attempt. Never, however, have I seen a wrong entry (as ill-luck would decree, in the only sacred work of the programme) greeted with a resonant expostulation of “Oh, shit” from the performer, followed by minor audience uproar and many apologies. It wasn’t the finest moment of the evening for Juan Diego Flórez, but – loath though I am to admit it – it wasn’t the worst either.

The familiar Flórez recital tics are well documented; the underfilled programme enabling a generous spate of encores (four last night) is harmless enough, allowing Flórez to offer up the after-hours showpieces and bonbons so beloved of the audience and at which he excels. Rather more pernicious however is the first-half warm-up that sees basic technical details go awry. For a man who can probably dispatch “Ah, mes amis” before breakfast to come to grief over a simple Rossini parlour song seems either bizarre or deeply remiss.

Sticking safely within the repertoire of his Fach (no Werther on this occasion), Flórez presented a programme in which the bread-and-butter Rossini and Donizetti were supplemented by Mozart, Lalo favourite “Vainement, ma bien-aimée”, and a trio of songs from living Puerto Rican composer Luis Prado.  Accompanied by just a pianist (Vincenzo Scalera), I’m not convinced that this latest in the Rosenblatt Recital series had any place in the rather unhelpful acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall, exacerbating as it did the swift decay of Flórez’s tone and doing little to round either his brighter textures or that of the barely opened Steinway.

Shown to good advantage in the opening Mozart was Flórez’s extraordinary evenness of tone. Whether crossing the upper passaggio in the declamatory vigour of La Clemenza’s “Se all’impero” or the leaner mezza voce of “Del più sublime soglio”, the transition remains imperceptible, with the voice if anything growing in focus as it gets above the stave. The lower register however is distinctly weak, and in this early stage of the concert Rossini’s tender “La gita in gondola” lost the ends of several phrases. The swaying arpeggiation – so crucial a part of the song’s characterisation and beautifully present in Scalera’s accompaniment – also suffered, with at least one attempt coming off the voice altogether, leaking aspirates in all directions.

While nothing was so horribly wrong with either the Mozart or the Rossini, it was hard not to wonder whether Flórez’s desire to move away from operatic coloratura was not more for his benefit than ours. Certainly it must be tedious to have to trot out all that fioritura (however lovely) night after night, but with his rather taut tone and less than organic relationship with text there is arguably little that he brings to such repertoire that could not find better and more subtle expression in lesser voices.

The French repertoire after the interval felt better – more connected emotionally and at last demonstrating some interpretative shading. Hampered by a rather monochrome piano arrangement, the Lalo was nevertheless the evening’s high point, followed by an almost equally smooth “Ange si pur” by Donizetti. The Prado songs – composed for Flórez and setting texts by Antonio Gala – are a somewhat disorienting blend of styles, moving through Neo-Classical bel canto in “Agua me daban” to the rather more contemporary ironies of “A pié van mis suspiros” to finish in a distorted Argentine Tango in “No por amor”. Clutching a score, Flórez seemed less than secure with the material and the contrast between these and the relaxed, sung-in stability of the encores was frustrating.

It should be said at this point that Flórez did nothing but delight the crowd. Loud and indefatigable in their enthusiasm, I only wish I could have felt the excitement. Eager as I was to surrender to the Flórez phenomenon, it stubbornly refused to appear until the encores where, in stalwarts “La donna è mobile”, “Ah! Leve-toi, soleil” and zarzuela “Adios Granada”, his flexible leggiero voice and playful personality finally came together. “Cessa di più resistere” gave us the gymnastics we had been waiting for and things at last fell into place. Flórez is a technical master but last night’s concert was by no means a masterclass.

Below, Florez sings Rossini's "Cessa di più resistere" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Teatro Real, Madrid in 2005

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