He'll take the high road
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 11 November 2001

The Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez is one of the world's most exciting
singers - but his voice needs careful handling, he tells Hugh Canning

He's not a candidate for the title of the "Fourth Tenor". Nor an
aspirant to the soon-to-be-vacant crowns of Luciano Pavarotti and
Placido Domingo. He has no wish to wow the masses with Nessun Dorma -
nor to sing any other Puccini, for that matter. And he only sings in one
opera by Verdi: as the youthful love interest, Fenton, in Falstaff. But
Juan Diego

Flórez is on the road to stardom, thanks to the rarity of his voice
type - the Italians call it a tenore di grazia (tenor of gracefulness) -
which has made him the No1 choice of the world's most important opera
houses in his specialities, the bel canto (beautiful singing) works of
Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

Next spring, he returns to Covent Garden, after triumphant appearances
in Rossini's Otello and La Cenerentola, last year and this, to sing
Elvino, the betrothed of the titular sleepwalker in Bellini's La
sonnambula. Flórez has just been singing in the production at the Vienna
State Opera (it comes to London next March), where they attempted to
abbreviate the part Bellini wrote for the greatest tenor of his day,
Giovanni Rubini. Flórez had other ideas. He may only be 28, but he
already knows his own worth.

"They wanted to cut my aria - can you believe it? - but I insisted."
Lucky for them that he did, because Flórez was really the only singer of
world-class distinction in the cast after Natalie Dessay was taken ill
and withdrew. In London, his Amina will be Elena Kelessidi, the young
Greek soprano whose performances in La traviata have won all hearts over
here. Indeed, we can expect the Royal Opera's performances to be an
improvement all round, even if Marco Arturo Marelli's staging is pretty
hopeless - he sets it in a Magic Mountain-style sanatorium because, like
Thomas Mann's novel, Bellini's opera has an Alpine setting! The Covent
Garden supporting cast - including the Cardiff Singer of the World,
Inger Dam-Jensen, and Alastair Miles - and the conductor, Maurizio
Benini, look a good deal more promising on paper than the mediocrities
in Vienna.

Flórez's Elvino was close to ideal casting, however. As those who saw
his Rodrigo in Otello or Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola - broadcast on
BBC2 last Boxing Day - will know, Flórez's appearance is as slender and
elegant as his voice. The latter is a classic of its type: Italianate,
with brilliant attack, a range extending to a stratosphere the Three
Tenors can only dream about, and a flexibility equal to all the vocal
curlicues and roulades the bel canto composers threw at their tenors.

No wonder Decca has snapped him up for a solo record contract. His first
Rossini disc includes the final aria for Count Almaviva from The Barber
of Seville, which is nearly always cut, because it is horrendously
difficult, and because Rossini reused it for Cinderella's spectacular
fireworks display at the end of Cenerentola. But Flórez always sings it
when he gets the chance:

"Rossini originally called his opera Almaviva, and he wrote it for the
great tenore leggiero [light tenor] Manuel García, so you must never cut
it. The Barber of Seville is the tenor's opera, not the baritone's."

Few Figaros would agree with that, but Flórez has history on his side,
and he has the vocal bravura to bring it off. Decca is clearly banking
on Flórez as a male counterpart to Cecilia Bartoli. In Rossini, their
voices should blend ideally: there's talk - no more - of a recording of
La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), a virtually unknown masterpiece
preceded by one of the composer's most popular overtures. Bartoli and
Flórez could restore the entire opera to the repertoire.

Although he is still very young, Flórez clearly has a strong sense of
his destiny in opera: he knows what he can and cannot sing. "I sang
Rinuccio in the Vienna production of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, but I
will never do it again in the theatre: it's a small part, but I felt it
was straining my voice."

He's right. Puccini wrote the role for the same tenor who sang the
dramatic role of Luigi in the first performances of Il tabarro, part of
the world premiere of Il trittico at the New York Met. On disc, Rinuccio
is often sung by Flórez's voice type, but in the theatre, it needs a
young Domingo. This self-knowledge is surprising, perhaps, because
Flórez never intended to become an opera singer, although there was
music in the family at home in Lima.

"My father is a professional singer of Peruvian music, so I always heard
him playing the guitar and singing at home. I also liked to play my own
music with the guitar from when I was 14 years old. I composed songs, I
liked rock'n'roll, I had a rock band - but there wasn't much classical
music in my life."

That happened when he joined his high-school chorus, whose conductor
gave him solos and private lessons. "He made me sing in an operatic way,
and taught me Questa o quella [the Duke of Mantua's opening number in
Verdi's Rigoletto], and Ave Maria by Schubert. With these two arias, I
auditioned for the conservatoire in Lima."

At the conservatoire, Flórez says, he didn't really know what was
suitable for his voice. He was torn between classical and popular
styles. "I wanted to study music by itself: composition - I wanted to
compose better - and how to play the piano. I learnt to play the piano
at the conservatory. I started to play well enough to play Chopin's
Nocturnes - not the difficult ones - and accompany myself."

In his Vienna apartment, which he rents from Domingo, Debussy's Le Petit
Nègre is open on the baby grand piano, so Flórez's interest in music
goes well beyond the standard works for his kind of tenor. But he
realises that his particular kind of voice makes him a specialist.

"Working with the Peruvian tenor Ernesto Palacio opened my eyes and ears
a bit. He said to me: 'You have this special type of voice, and you have
to be careful with it.' I met him in 1994, and when he heard me, he had
some reservations. It wasn't, like, 'Wow!', but he invited me to do a
small role on a CD. Then I went to Italy to study with him, and I
started to improve in a little time."

In 1996, aged only 23, Flórez made his breakthrough. "I went to the
Rossini Festival in Pesaro to prepare a small role in Matilde di Shabran
at short notice, but I ended up singing the main tenor part. That was
the reason I became well known very fast, because a lot of theatre
management was there. This was my first professional opera engagement,
and after that my calender was full. La Scala invited me to audition in
August, and I sang in Armide in Milan that December. In between came
L'Etoile du nord [Meyerbeer] in Wexford. But the big theatres were
already after me."

Luckily for Covent Garden, it managed to nab Flórez the following year,
when he replaced Giuseppe Sabbatini in a concert performance of the
rediscovered Donizetti opera Elisabetta, and promptly signed him up for
Otello, La Cenerentola and La sonnambula. London can look forward to a
revival of the hugely successful Cinderella.

It's high time they did a new Barber of Seville - oops, sorry,
Almaviva - for the best young Rossini tenor of the day.

Page last updated on: July 27, 2002