Recital, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California, 6 January 2004

Tenor Florez dazzles when he connects, Contra Costa Times, 8 January 2004
Tenor Flórez wavers during short recital, San Francisco Chronicle, 8 January 2004
Peruvian tenor turns audience into mush, Alameda Times-Star, 8 January 2004
Truly Gifted, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 January 2004 [external link]
Tenor Florez dazzles when he connects
Georgia Rowe, Contra Costa Times, 8 January 2004

It was the kind of moment that sends opera lovers into a state of unmitigated bliss. Performing the first of two encores following his vocal recital Tuesday evening at Zellerbach Hall, Juan Diego Florez sang "Una furtiva lagrima," and it seemed that the new Golden Age of opera had just begun.

The aria from Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" is one of the most famous tenor vehicles in the bel canto repertoire, and Florez's delivery was everything it should be -- ardent, sweet-toned and exquisitely communicative. It was a performance that clearly demonstrated why the 30-year-old Peruvian tenor has risen to the opera world's top ranks.

Not everything in Tuesday's recital, presented by Cal Performances, came up to the level of the encore. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, it was a rather slight program, and Florez didn't seem completely at ease with all of his selections.

When he connected with the material, however, he was dazzling. And the event was as rewarding for what it promised as what it delivered.

Florez is a bel canto specialist, an expert in the elegant, highly decorative singing style that demands exceeding agility from the voice. He demonstrated that admirably when he made his San Francisco Opera debut last season as Don Ramiro in Rossini's "La Cenerentola," and he recently sang Almaviva in the composer's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" at the Metropolitan Opera. But much of his recital ventured beyond 19th century Italian repertoire. Accompanied by pianist Vincenzo Scalera, he performed songs and arias by Beethoven, Schubert, Bizet, Massenet, Morales and Mozart, as well as several by Rossini and Donizetti.

The recital started a little tentatively with Schubert's "Guarda che bianca luna" and Beethoven's "Adelaide." The tenor sounded a bit uneasy in the former, a lovely setting of an Italian text by Jacopo Vittorelli. Nor did he completely inhabit the latter. Yet, if he struggled a bit with the texts, at least he sang with clear, ringing tone.

The first half's Mozart numbers were stronger. Florez caressed the gentle melodic line of the composer's "Ridente la calma," and captured the dramatic sense of "Si spande al sole in faccia" from the opera "Il Re Pastore." The music was handsomely ornamented and conveyed with admirable restraint; this tenor is an aristocrat in every fiber of his being.

Most surprising were a pair of French songs performed in the second half -- Massenet's "Ouvre tes yeux bleus," followed by Bizet's "Ouvre ton coeur." Both were sung with ease, finesse and plenty of power, and each made one wonder: Could there be a Werther, a des Grieux, or even a Don Jose in Florez's future?

Florez seemed most relaxed in his native Spanish, during a pair of powerhouse songs by Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales ("Malhaya el amor" and "Hasta la guitarra llora") and, in the second encore, Serrano's "Jota" from the zarzuela "Il Trust de los Tenorios."

Still, it was the bel canto selections that showed him to best advantage. In addition to "Una furtiva lagrima," he gave "Che ascolto?" from Rossini's "Otello" an assured, diamond-bright performance. And in "Allegro io son," from Donizetti's "Rita," he projected the music's comic exuberance while sailing through the difficult coloratura with stunning poise. It was enough to conjure fantasies of Florez returning to the San Francisco Opera, singing the complete roles in new productions of both operas. Don't hold your breath; it's not a foregone conclusion. But an opera lover can always dream.

Tenor Flórez wavers during short recital
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, 8 January 2004

The problem with having extravagant claims advanced on your behalf is that sooner or later you're expected to live up to them. The young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who has been widely hailed in the operatic world as some kind of vocal sensation, continues to dodge the task.

His latest Bay Area appearance came Tuesday night in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, during a pleasant but rather meager recital presented by Cal Performances. Accompanied with winning assurance by pianist Vincenzo Scalera, Flórez offered a handful of vocal rarities in small-scale renditions that did little to justify the breathless enthusiasm that has attended his career so far.

As in his San Francisco Opera debut last June in Rossini's "La Cenerentola," Flórez displayed a sweetly turned lyric voice, evenly deployed and boasting a small but well-controlled dynamic range. His singing can be decorous or urgent as necessary, and he can shape a lyrical phrase with considerable fluency.

But those virtues surfaced only intermittently amid a great deal of strenuous vocalism and interpretive uncertainty. The high notes and coloratura passagework that are a large part of Flórez's artistic personality were there, but they sounded strained and uncomfortable.

And there was a vein of blandness running through most of the program, a sense that we were witnessing a gifted music student running through a lesson rather than a full-fledged artist making a coherent musical statement.

Perhaps poor planning was partly to blame. The tiny program, 10 numbers in all, barely squeaked past the one-hour mark thanks to a generous intermission and a stroll offstage after any two consecutive offerings (two encores, by Donizetti and the zarzuela composer José Serrano, extended the evening a bit).

And although the relative adventurousness of the repertoire was enticing (Beethoven's "Adelaide" was the only real chestnut), Flórez's recourse to the printed music for much of the evening suggested that the repertoire was almost as unfamiliar to him as to the audience.

There was one moment of real transcendence, an extraordinary rendition of Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima" that served as Flórez's initial encore. Here at last the tentativeness that had dogged the evening vanished, replaced by rich, full-bodied vocal tone and a genuine mastery of scale as the aria expanded outward from its tender opening phrases.

Flórez also lent some heartfelt intensity to two folklike songs by the Peruvian composer Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales. "Hasta la guitarra llora" ("Until the Guitar Cries"), a beautiful and rhythmically subtle outcry, proved especially memorable.

But the rest of the program found Flórez either struggling, as in a pair of ill-tuned songs by Massenet and Bizet, or lapsing into generic responses. "Adelaide" sounded buoyant but scarcely made any emotional impact, and the brilliant showpiece "Allegro io son," from Donizetti's "Rita," has never sounded so disposable.

Peruvian tenor turns audience into mush
Stephanie von Buchau, Alameda Times-Star, 8 January 2004

San Francisco Opera is concentrating its shrinking budget on productions instead of personnel, the only place to hear today's star singers locally is in vocal recitals. Even SFO will present Renee Fleming in that manner later in the year.

Fortunately, San Francisco Performances and UC Berkeley's Cal Performances are taking up the slack. This spring's Cal Performance schedule brings us three of the opera world's starriest singers -- Anne Sofie von Otter, Cecilia Bartoli and Salvatore Licitra.

Tuesday night at Zellerbach Hall, tenor Juan Diego Florez, arguably the most glamorous and spectacular of all the new supernovas, returned to Berkeley for another evening of his divinely communicative art.

The 31-year-old Peruvian is blessed with matinee idol good looks, a sweetly virile "tenore di grazia," technique to burn and a natural joy in singing that immediately connects with his listeners. Texts were printed in the program but, with the tenor speaking directly to us, nobody was reading.

Florez opened with strophic songs by Schubert (the Italian text "Guarda che bianca luna") and Beethoven's often soporific "Adelaide." He applied so much variety, subtle rubato and emotional meaning that both songs seemed almost like mini-operas.

His German may be soft-centered and unfocused as yet in his young career, but his French gave two gorgeous songs by Massenet ("Ouvre tes yeux bleus") and Bizet ("Ouvre ton coeur") a caressing, morning-after sensuality against which there is no defense.

Bel canto arias closed each half of the program, the naughty "Allegro io son" ("Happy to be a bachelor again") from Donizetti's "Rita" and the big scene, "Che ascolto?" from Rossini's "Otello," in which Rodrigo sings piteously about his betrayed love and then threatens terrible vengeance on the betrayer.

As wonderful as this repertory was, with powerfully incisive high notes, easily articulated runs, tasteful yet demanding ornamentation and generous emotional identification, it was two Latin numbers in which Florez demonstrated why audiences love his style.

He could easily have a huge career in Latin America as a popular singer. I don't know who composer Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales is -- Peruvian, I'd guess -- but her music is filled with exciting cabaret rhythms that get Florez's whole body moving. Consequently, his voice opens up even more, swinging and swooning through songs with the melancholy titles "Curse love" and "Until the guitar cries."

The short program ended with two encores that have long been the territory of the late Spanish tenor, Alfredo Kraus. The exciting "Jota" from Serrano's "Trust de los tenorios," with its tricky rhythm and its sensational climactic high note, was joined by Donizettti's "Una furtiva lagrima."

If I have a quarrel with Florez -- and it's a minor objection -- it is that he is so "on," so forceful, so eager to communicate that he doesn't always let the music flow. Florez has plenty of breath and shapes Nemorino's aria elegantly. When he learns to relax just a bit and trust us to understand the character's introspection without having it underlined, it may not be possible to listen to him without dissolving into a puddle.


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