The front cover of Juan Diego Flórez's new CD, Bel Canto Spectacular, shows the Peruvian tenor in full evening dress with his body slightly to one side, adjusting his cufflinks as if he's about to go onstage. Sometimes, this might be an attempt to manipulate the consumer's response to the music through a visual message, but here it is completely unnecessary: even without the packaging, this is a pretty classy disc of arias and duets from Flórez's typical Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti fare.
As might be expected, there's ample opportunity for the tenor to show off his dazzlingly secure top register. It seems he couldn't resist including the famous showcase of high Cs, 'Amici miei, che allegro giorno!' from Donizetti's La figlia del reggimento (the Italian version of The Daughter of the Regiment), an aria that has almost become his signature tune. This is good strong, solid singing, and there's a firm contribution from the Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana as the chorus of soldiers.
But if I'm honest, the opening track lacks an edge of theatricality, and the knowledge that Flórez can sing the number so securely in a way gives it an air of predictability. Instead, the most impressive items on the programme stand out because the tenor engages with the emotion and words, and also because he seems to be acquiring greater warmth slightly lower down in the voice.
I had wondered whether the duet with Anna Netrebko, 'Vieni fra queste braccia' from I puritani by Bellini, would really work, because Flórez's voice is so light and clean compared to Netrebko's Slavonic tone. But in fact, it's dramatically urgent and expressive, and there's good chemistry between them; the two must make an electric pairing on the stage. The daredevil velocity with which the pair sing the concluding section is thrilling to behold.
For me, 'Da quel di' from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix with Patrizia Ciofi is the highlight of the disc. The singers are well matched on every level, as their pairing on Decca's DVD of La fille du régiment shows, and the combination of their light, flexible voices works equally well here. In recent times, Ciofi has been moving more towards the spinto roles, and the way she uses all kinds of expressive devices seems to have encouraged him likewise to find a warmer, more ardent sound in his delivery. Indeed, he seems at his best in the serious Donizetti arias here, be it 'T'amo qual s'ama un angelo' from Lucrezia Borgia, 'Ange si pur' from La Favorite, 'Se tanto in ira agl'uomini' from Linda di Chamounix or even Nemorino's 'Una furtive lagrima' from the comic L'elisir d'amore. The shaded dynamics, well-rounded phrases and clarity of diction are signs of the singer's comfort in this demanding repertoire.
Still, Flórez has the light touch required for comedy and finds different colours in his voice for the examples of opera buffa on the disc. He teams up with the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień for 'Venti scudi', the charming Belcore-Nemorino duet from L'elisir d'amore, one of the strongest tracks on offer here. The classical precision the two bring to the piece, combined with a robust coloratura and more than enough stamina for the piece, guarantees an effective performance. Slightly less effective is 'D'alma celeste', the duet from Il viaggio a Rheims. In spite of being stylistically sympathetic with Flórez, rattling off the runs with apparent ease, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona's voice is just a shade too heavy to sit comfortably alongside the tenor's, giving sections of the duet a feeling of imbalance. Strong accompaniment from the Orquesta de la Communitat Valenciana under Daniel Oren: there's nothing particularly subtle about the conductor's approach, but its liveliness suits the repertoire.
A bonus track provides the most unlikely combination on the CD: the indomitable sexagenarian Plácido Domingo teams up with Flórez for a duet from Rossini's Otello. In a delightful postmodern twist, Domingo again takes the title role (for which he was famous in Verdi's opera of the same name, of course). Although there's a little strain in his voice when he has to go above a G, one can only marvel at how well his instrument is preserved after forty years at the top, and the benefit of his recent foray into baroque opera is apparent from the ease with which he dispatches the fioriture. The two tenors seem in sympathy with one another, and the performance closes an interesting selection of duets and arias from the most important singer of bel canto music to have emerged in the last decade.