Seven encores. Seven. Encores. That is how much of a fuss this Peruvian born, rather attractive-looking (if I must say), and even more magnificently sounding man commands on a Thursday evening at the Royal Festival Hall, at the first of the 2011 season of the Rosenblatt Recitals, a platform for singers to give their UK recital debuts and an occasion for some public enjoyment of world-class opera and song.
Juan Diego Flórez, bel canto tenor and operatic superstar, took to the huge wood-panelled stage, accompanied by his pianist, Vincenzo Scalera, both dressed in charismatic white tie. The evening began as you might have expected, an attentive audience listened carefully to the beautifully rehearsed initial ‘Se all’impero’ and ‘Del più sublime soglio’ by Mozart, yet, from the outset, you could tell there was something a little more lively in the air. Among the sell-out crowd there was an underlying frisson of anticipation that couldn’t help but put light to the performer’s talent.
Often, at such concerts, the audience’s knowledge of the pieces can be taken for granted with the programme merely listing the order of play and a couple of confusing notations and acronyms. For a newcomer such as myself, however, to keep one au fait with what was going on, here the programme detailed a brief synopsis of each aria along with the words and their relevant English translation. This enabled even the most amateur of opera-goer to keep up with the story – most of course centring on a tragic romance. Chatter during the brief pauses between each piece revealed the calibre of clientele – some well-versed in opera talking enthusiastically about the Portuguese performance they’d seen a few weeks prior, others mentioning folk bands and some who said ‘he must be Spanish’ – clearly with much less of an initial idea.
Thus, with the foolproof guide and a comforting degree of equal company (not all grey-haired either – au contraire), we were soon lulled into the gentle daydreams created by Rossini. ‘La gita in Gondola’ or ‘The ride on a gondola’ was wonderful – and we were successfully transported onto a canal being rowed by our merry boatman, Juan Diego. The next piece ‘La promessa’ expressed some of Rossini’s more exquisite melodies, spontaneous, exuberant and often ironic. So intricately does he work colour, mood and texture into his work – painting pictures throughout the music in his own distinctive style.
In fact, so my programme told me, il signor Rossini, always the entertainer, delved one arty step deeper. On the evenings when he would entertain friends, he crafted his verse through the piano. And it is often said that he found music more delightful and poetic than the poetry set to it alone. To me the notes flowing from the piano were like the bubbles from a kettle gently boiling and escaping as light steam, hot and happily light-headed. But if you’re worried this was all getting a little too high brow and bourgeois, then don’t, because suddenly something quite tremendous happened.
In the closing number before the interval, Florez forgot his words mid-way through and, upon realising he was about to stall, swore. Peals of nervous laughter emitted from the audience as a now shell-shocked tenor attempted to recover from his faux pas. But, in the charming manner of a true entertainer, his pause to start again was extremely well-received and the streams of giggles and guffaws diluted joyfully. Given the weight of expectation on the man’s shoulders it was, and will become, a defining moment. If nothing else this just goes to show how newly presented opera of this kind is loosening its collar and becoming less operah, more operyeah. It was an inspired moment.
The entertainer continued, twitching in his tails as he got into his stride and acting out some Edouard Lalo in enchanting and beautifully moving French. This was followed by Donizetti and then a collection of pieces by Luis Prado, a current Puerto Rican composer, winning the hearts and minds of many a modern muso with his love-struck lyrics. ‘Hoy he olvidado ya tus ojos/ y tengo ganas de llorar’ – ‘today I forgot what your eyes look like, and I wanted to cry’.
A final blast from Verdi’s ‘Pietoso al lungo pianto’ and the concert drew to an end. Or so the audience thought. But, as I began, they just couldn’t get enough. And neither could Juan Diego. Re-appearance after re-appearance, the applause just kept on coming. He was crowd-hungry, and they were giving him exactly what he wanted: undivided, uninterrupted attention. And deservedly so. With his magnificently held super-long notes and innocent boyish charm, this will be a star to watch from hereon in.
The Rosenblatt Recitals series of operatic affairs continues on Thursday 10th February at St John Smith’s Square in London with the celebrated baritone, Massimo Cavalletti taking to the stage. A graduate of the renowned La Scala, Cavalletti will be performing a cavalcade of classics including the crowd-pleasing Largo Al Factotum from The Barber of Seville and works from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Bizet’s Carmen to Verdi and Donizetti. For more information and the concert programme, visit their website.