A Recital of Songs and Arias

Juan Diego Flórez (tenor); Vincenzo Scalera (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 21 January 2011 3.5 stars

Juan Diego Flórez (Photo © Josef GallauerThe Rosenblatt Recitals have being bringing some of the world's great singers, predominantly in the early stages of their careers, to London for just over a decade now. When Juan Diego Flórez made his debut with them in their 2001 season, he already had a formidable reputation as a singer whose voice—small but perfectly formed—could negotiate the toughest challenges of the bel canto repertoire without breaking a sweat. Now, of course, he's long been a superstar, and the smaller St. John Smith Square favoured by the Rosenblatts cannot hope to hold a fraction of those clamouring to hear him in recital.

The move to the Royal Festival Hall was understandable, then, but with just Vincenzo Scalera's piano for accompaniment, the Flórez voice was alone in the spotlight. All its unique virtues were in evidence—astonishing ease throughout the range, the facility with coloratura, the endless top. But the circumstances contrived to highlight some of its weaknesses. In the two arias from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito with which we opened, it was also immediately apparent that the orchestra was going to be sorely missed. Scalera did what he could, but the rhetorical force of strings, winds and brass is never going to be matched by the weedy tremelos of a piano reduction. The Mozart, moreover, although efficiently delivered by Flórez, never seemed much more than a warm up. And the Festival Hall acoustic seemed at this stage to render the voice smaller, drier and more monochrome than it usually comes across in the theatre. Despite some authoritarian posturing, and a hint of the longer line in 'Del più sublime soglio', there wasn't much sense of character, either.

Flórez is not primarily associated with Mozart. But it was a little surprising to see that Rossini, with whose music he's almost become synonymous, was hardly better served by the concert. It's difficult to get terribly excited about much of what Rossini composed after abandoning opera, and his various salon songs need something special in performance to be persuasive. Here Flórez was never less than engaging, polished and professional, but again one was made very aware of the voice's colouristic limitations: it failed to bloom where it might have and struggled to project in the lower reaches. In all, it came perilously close to matching the unfortunate—but unfortunately accurate—subtitle of the solo Prélude Scalera despatched next: Musique Anodine. Flórez had saved the big guns for the 'Qui tollis' (from Messa di Gloria) that closed the first half. Not all those guns were quite on target, though, most drastically in a memory lapse that elicited a candid 'Oh shit!' from Flórez. That the audience reacted with generous amusement followed by applause is testament to the singer's charm as a performer. And, once the piece was restarted and progressed to a coloratura-packed cabaletta (Rossini doesn't do genuflecting piety), Flórez was undeniably impressive. However, there was a nagging feeling, here more than anywhere, that the lack of orchestra (and chorus) seemed to expose purely musical deficiencies of Rossini's score.

The second half saw Flórez cast his net wider, with differing degrees of success. We started in French, and with what were the joint highlights of the concert: Lalo's 'Vainement ma bien-aimée' (Le Roi D'Ys) and 'Ange si pur' from Donizetti's La favorite. In the first of these, a slight but delightful aria, Flórez seemed to have relaxed. The phrasing was more expansive and the voice seemed to take on more colour. The Donizetti was phrased generously, too, capped with a predictably confident top C.

An adjustment was required as we then moved closer to the singer's home country, with three songs (written for Flórez) by the Puerto-Rican composer Luis Prado. The programme note waxed lyrical about Prado's achievements, but it was mainly a talent for pastiche that we heard here. There was evidence of a handy melodic gift in 'Agua me daban a mí', sung against an appropriately trickly piano accompaniment, 'A pié van mis suspiros' was a bit of a jumble stylistically, and for 'No por amor' Prado wheeled out a quirky tango. A rarity of a different sort followed in the form of 'Pietoso al lungo pianto' from Verdi's early Un giorno di Regno, performed fluently and topped off, somewhat gratuitously, with a clean, crowd-pleasing high note.

The crowd was suitably pleased, and, given the short scheduled programme, the encores came as no surprise. I caught a Zarzuela number and an impressively secure 'O lêves-toi soleil' from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, and joined the general exodus as the applause died out. The applause started again as I went out the door, and apparently two more encores followed. Lesson learnt.

By Hugo Shirley

Photo © Josef Gallauer