Juan Diego Flórez / Vincenzo Scalera - Royal Festival Hall
After a low-key start, Juan Diego Flórez ended his latest London recital triumphantly with a standing ovation and a stream of encores - despite an unaccustomed memory lapse and an even more out-of-character - shhhh ~super-sweary outburst~ along the way.
The programme offered a perfect illustration of Juan Diego's perpetual dilemma. Should he stick with the audience-thrilling bel canto pyrotechnics of which he is the undisputed master? Or should he listen to the carping critics who lambast his narrow range, and branch out in a less comfortable direction? Is he himself tiring of the fioriture he produces with such grace and ease?
La clemenza di Tito is hardly a radical sidestep, but was it a wise one? Of course Juan Diego's delivery was faultless, but the formal precision and regal flavour of his two arias highlighted the inflexibility of his tone without suggesting there was anything hitherto undiscovered in his bag of tricks.
The intimacy of the three Rossini songs that followed seemed more suited to Wigmore Hall than the vast barn of the Royal Festival Hall. To respect their subtlety of expression and at the same time reach out to the back rows would be tough for any singer. Their lilting, lyrical lines needed more colour than Juan Diego provided, though at least in the urgent dance rhythms of Tirana alla spagnola he whipped up some excitement.
Finally he hit the button with the choir stall bel canto of Rossini's Messa di Gloria, which beats Verdi's Requiem hands down for most operaticest mass ever. Surprisingly for the always immaculately-prepared Flórez, he slipped up and repeated a line a few bars in. "Oh shit" he muttered - to his own surprise I think as much as anyone else's. Hardly weapons-grade obscenity, but hearing it from any tailcoated tenor - especially family favourite Flórez - in the middle of a recital is like catching the Pope at a condom machine.
As the programme points out, the Qui tollis is "possibly the most florid piece Rossini ever wrote." It's not just that this music inherently shows off what Juan Diego can do brilliantly - the agility, the ringing high notes, the bright, forward sound. He knows it too, and he's fearless in giving that little bit more. The ice was broken.
The piano part rather than the singing let down Lalo's Vainement, ma bien-aimée - not the way Vincenzo Scalera played, but the mean, hiccuping little arrangement itself. Deprived of their rightful orchestral accompaniment, all of the arias on the programme suffered to some extent, but the Lalo in particular needed a rewrite more lushly-textured than a simple piano reduction could provide.
Donizetti's Ange si pur and Verdi's Pietoso al lungo pianto are old Flórez favourites, and it was a joy to hear how comfortably he inhabited them. But three songs by the young Puerto Rican composer Luis Prado proved there's perhaps more to Juan Diego than we've seen so far. His voice, now softened at the edges, curled snugly around the Spanish lines. Despite relying on a score, the words seemed to come from within. If only the music, pleasant though it is, was a little more imaginative.
The encores were pure fun. He said he couldn't remember if he'd done the first, the zarzuela Adios Granada, in London before. Juan Diego, it was less than a year ago! And it was just as terrific second time round.
It seemed as if we'd had our lot after Ah! Lève-toi soleil, and people started to leave. But just as the applause threatened to die out totally, back he came for Rossini's killer Cessa di più resistere cabaletta and a crowd-pleasing La donna è mobile, both followed by cheering, foot stamping and whistling. One thing is certain - wherever Juan Diego decide to take his career in future, there's a big audience who won't let him give up the old favourites easily.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Se all'impero (from La clemenza di Tito)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Del più sublime soglio (from La clemenza di Tito)
Gioachino Rossini: La Gita in gondola (Soirées musicales No.7)
Gioachino Rossini: La Promessa (Soirées musicales No.1)
Gioachino Rossini: Tirana alla spagnola (Melodie italiane No.6)
Gioachino Rossini: Piano Prelude from Musique Anodine
Gioachino Rossini: Qui tollis (from Messa di gloria)
Edouard Lalo: Vainement, ma bien-aimée (from Le Roi d'Ys)
Gaetano Donizetti: Ange si pur (from La Favorite)
Luis Prado: Agua me daban a mí
Luis Prado: A pié van mis suspiros
Luis Prado: No por amor
Giuseppe Verdi: Pietoso al lungo pianto (from Un giorno di regno)
Tomás Barrera Saavedra: Adios Granada from Los emigrantes
Charles Gounod: Ah! Lève-toi, soleil from Roméo et Juliette
Gioachino Rossini: Ah, il più lieto il più felice (Cessa di più resistere Cabaletta)
Giuseppe Verdi: La donna è mobile (from Rigoletto)
btw - the mics are there for recording purposes, not amplification.....
and here are a few more, courtesy of Michael: