Flórez exhilarates with French arias, Latin encores at Carnegie

Mon Nov 19, 2018 at 4:43 pm
Juan Diego Flórez Juan-Diego Flórez performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Juan-Diego Flórez performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

A recital with Juan-Diego Flórez is always bound to be a major event. His performance at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, no surprise, boasted an electric atmosphere, even if his early over-reliance on the familiar led to an imbalance between the program’s two halves (three, if you count his parade of encores).

The top of Sunday’s announced program was a predictable run of bel canto arias and canzone: starting with Rossini’s “Addio ai viennesi.” Flórez showcased the bright vitality of his upper range, stretching the tops of phrases and dangling high pianissimos for added flair. He took a similar tack in “Come poteva un angelo” from Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata and “Tombe degli avi miei” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, where pianist Vincenzo Scalera gave a reverent, warm rendition of the introduction.

This, of course, is the repertoire on which Flórez has made his reputation, and his top register was explosive all night. In these early selections, though, he seemed otherwise limited: his voice felt small in Carnegie’s main auditorium, even threatening to disappear under the piano here and there, and his tone in his lower and middle voice was grey, with labored vibrato. His once-airtight coloratura misfired frequently, most noticeably in Rossini’s “Bolero.”

More to the point, the first part of the recital gave only a flat view of Flórez’s rich artistry: in an overwrought “Una furtiva lagrima,” the marquee aria of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, he slid into every single note and took Scalera on a wild ride with his warping tempos.

Most of the Flórez fans likely came out for those bel canto staples, but far more rewarding was the second half, which featured fuller lyric arias outside his usual wheelhouse. 

His Massenet selections were particularly effective: “Ouvre tes yeux bleus” from Poème d’amour was beautifully shaped, showing more definition in his tone than on the first half. “En fermant les yeux” from Manon revealed yet another side of Flórez, quieter, less flashy, and more subtly crafted than anything else on his program. Werther’s “Pourquoi me réveiller,” though slightly pushed, was passionate and affecting, albeit on top of a vastly overwritten piano reduction.

That soupy arrangement aside, Scalera’s playing throughout the Sunday recital was admirable, and he had two chances to show off on his own while Flórez took a break: Donizetti’s Waltz for Piano in C Major twirled gracefully, and a transcription of the “Méditation” from Thaïs, though inevitably somewhat chillier than the full original version for violin and orchestra, was endearing in its simplicity.

Flórez offered “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure,” the great tenor aria from Gounod’s Faust, in an earnest, uncomplicated rendition, letting the melody shine without pushing. His last scheduled item was the biggest stretch for his voice, “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La bohème. This performance posed an interesting tradeoff, as he lacked the weight usually expected of a Rodolfo, but was therefore able to craft elegant phrases at the aria’s top.

Then came the third “half”—seven encores that made for a wild atmosphere in the hall: a cheer went up when the Peruvian tenor emerged from the wings with guitar in hand for the first three, and he gave a steamy “Bésame mucho,” along with Chabuca Granda’s sensuous “La flor de la canela.” The light, plaintive melody of “Cucurrucucu paloma” was especially haunting, making the cavernous hall seem suddenly half its size.

Flórez had engaged in a little banter earlier in the evening, even striking up a brief conversation with someone in the top balcony. In his encores, he went almost into a full comedy routine, sending up his own hamminess in Augustin Lara’s “Granada.” 

The audience, encouraged by his chummy charisma, shouted requests from the floor: “Pour mon âme,” the flashy standard from La fille du régiment, has long been one of Flórez’s signature pieces, and he nailed every one of the high Cs with ease on Sunday. He signed off with a ringing account of Turandot’s “Nessun dorma,” conducting as he led the audience in humming along to the tutti.

This half-hour or more of encores, banter, and physical comedy was tremendously goofy. It was also exhilarating: to hear an artist indulge in a repertoire he so clearly loves, and to see his audience react with joyous adulation, was a privilege. This was a chance for music fanatics to be a bit less buttoned up about their appreciation of a star–a little more of that unbridled enthusiasm could go a long way for the health of the musical world as a whole.

One Response to “Flórez exhilarates with French arias, Latin encores at Carnegie”

  1. Posted Nov 21, 2018 at 7:25 am by JNY

    Having followed his career for many years now (and I must admit I still prefer the Rossini repertory) this was indeed an outstanding concert. The voice still shows flexibility while having a fuller, richer sound. I can’t say that I like all the banter with the audience, but he can certainly pull it off. I cannot see how all this is a danger to the health of the musical community.

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