11 April 2014

CD REVIEW: L’AMOUR – French Opera Arias (Juan Diego Flórez, tenor; DECCA B0020307-02)

L'AMOUR - French Opera Arias (Juan Diego Flórez, tenor; DECCA B0020307-02)

ADOLPHE CHARLES ADAM (1803 – 1856), HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869), GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875), FRANÇOIS-ADRIEN BOIËLDIEU (1775 – 1834), LÉO DELIBES (1836 – 1891), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1792 – 1848), CHARLES GOUNOD (1818 – 1893), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), JACQUES OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880), AMBROISE THOMAS (1811 – 1896): L’Amour – Arias from Le postillon de Lonjumeau, La dame blanche, Les Troyens, La jolie fille de Perth, Lakmé, La favorite, Roméo et Juliette, Werther, La belle Hélène, and MignonJuan Diego Flórez, tenor; Sergey Artamonov, bass (La favorite); Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna; Roberto Abbado, conductor [Recorded at Teatro Manzoni, Bologna, Italy, on 3, 5, 8, 11, 13, and 16 July 2013; DECCA B0020307-02; 1CD; 64:15; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Some of the most serendipitous occasions in opera are those that occur without the dual benefit and curse of expectation. An insightful artist, sure of his preparedness, can take advantage of an unheralded opportunity to transform the inevitable nervousness that accompanies an important début into dramatic energy that transcends the circumstances of the performance. When the tenor scheduled to sing the musically altitudinous rôle of Corradino in Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran in Pesaro’s 1996 Rossini Opera Festival production fell ill, a young tenor—then only twenty-three years old—was thrust into prominence, honoring the legacy of the rôle’s creator, Giuseppe Fusconi, whose careers in Corfu, Vicenza, and Venice—where he sang the part of Pietro in the première of Donizetti’s Enrico di Borgogna in 1818—seemingly often found him rescuing performances imperiled by colleagues’ indispositions. With a portrayal of Corradino that continues to inspire awe among those who heard it, the international career of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez was launched into the operatic firmament with meteoric brilliance. Unlike many estrellas operísticas, however, Mr. Flórez has remained resplendently in orbit rather than crashing back to the terrestrial realities of spent vocal resources and inadequate technique. Now forty-one, Mr. Flórez continues to broaden his artistic horizons while maintaining the exalted level of accomplishment that has been a hallmark of his singing throughout his career. Though his DECCA recording of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice preserved a sterling account of the 1774 Paris version of the score and both Rossini’s Comte Ory (recorded in performance by Deutsche Grammophon) and Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment have figured prominently in his stage repertoire in recent seasons, L’Amour is Mr. Flórez’s first recorded foray into the fruitful stratum of 19th-Century French opera. Whether on account of the specific vocal demands of the music or the significance of the assignments for a singer of his prestige, L’Amour provides Mr. Flórez with the opportunity to beguile listeners with arias from rôles that he is unlikely to sing in the world’s opera houses alongside performances of music that might have been composed specially for his tenore di grazia voice. Mr. Flórez is to be applauded for following his artistic inquisitiveness along new trails at a time in the career at which many important singers are content to rest on their laurels by singing only music with which they are comfortable. Still more deserving of applause is the shrewdness of this artist that, after nearly two decades of conquering some of the most terrifying rôles in the tenor repertoire, enables him to sing with the beauty and uninhibited joy that glow in so many passages on L’Amour.

The account of Georges’s martial aria ‘Ah! quel plaisir d’être soldat’ from Boiëldieu’s La dame blanche with which Mr. Flórez launches L’Amour sets the pace for a thrilling but refreshingly thoughtful recital. Georges’s ‘Viens, gentille dame’ suits Mr. Flórez even better, but his singing of ‘Ah! quel plaisir d’être soldat’ is stirring, the text delivered with conviction and sly humor. Throughout the selections on L’Amour, Mr. Flórez’s French diction is admirable, with few of the distortions of nasal vowels that many singers—especially tenors—employ to facilitate placement of tones in the upper register. Negotiations of the ascents to and above top C are managed with his customary fearlessness, but here reservations arise and linger to the end of the disc. Mr. Flórez’s intonation remains splendidly reliable, but the steadiness of sustained tones at the extreme top of his range is no longer unimpeachable. The seemingly compromised quality of notes above top B♭ is likely exacerbated by the closeness with which the voice was recorded, but even his ardent singing of Elvino’s ‘Prendi l’anel ti dono’ in the 2008 studio recording of Bellini’s La sonnambula revealed a slight beat on the top Cs. [A performance of La fille du régiment heard at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010 revealed no deterioration of the top Cs in ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin’ or the top D in ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ despite Mr. Flórez having been announced as being slightly indisposed, however.] The ebullience of Mr. Flórez’s singing of Chapelou’s ‘Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire d’un jeune et galant postillon’ from Adolphe Adam’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau is fantastic, but the aria’s top Ds sound desperate rather than exuberant. The interpolated top notes actually distract from the pulchritude of Mr. Flórez’s phrasing in Ferrand’s ‘Un ange, une femme inconnue’ from Donizetti’s La favorite, in which he receives resonant support from Russian bass Sergey Artamonov. His efforts are also complemented by the graceful contributions of the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and Maestro Roberto Abbado.

The unmistakably Gallic eloquence of Henri’s air ‘À la voix d’un amant fidèle’ from Bizet’s La jolie fille de Perth may come as a surprise to listeners familiar only with the composer’s Carmen, but the charm of the music is winningly realized in Mr. Flórez’s performance of the aria. Famously recorded by Alfredo Kraus, the aria draws from Mr. Flórez similar refinement of phrasing, and the finesse with which Mr. Flórez approaches the climactic top notes is appropriately poised. The frolicking Jugement de Pâris, ‘Au mont Ida, trois déesses, from Offenbach’s La belle Hélène is so dazzlingly sung by Mr. Flórez that it seems finer music than it actually is. His comedic gifts are bountiful, and how awesome—and unusual—it would be to hear a voice of this quality in Offenbach’s high-flying tenor rôles! Gérald’s gorgeous ‘Fantaisie aux divins mensonges’ from Delibes’s still-too-seldom-heard Lakmé is one of the most mesmerizing selections on the disc, Mr. Flórez’s timbre and imaginative use of text imparting the rhapsodic nature of Gérald’s expression. Thomas’s Mignon also deserves to be performed more frequently and by more of the world’s important opera companies, and the fluidity of line that Mr. Flórez devotes to his performance of Wilhelm Meister’s ‘Oui, je veux par le monde promener librement mon humeur vagabonde’ elucidates the inspiration of Thomas’s vocal writing. In Roméo’s ubiquitous ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil’ from Roméo et Juliette, the top B♭s at the crests of Gounod’s melodic arcs sound forced, and though his articulations of the vocal lines are elegant they do not justify the inclusion of the aria in this recital: a piece like Nadir’s ‘Je crois entendre encore’ from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles would have been preferable. It is regrettable that, aside from the sumptuous aria ‘O blonde Cérès,’ the rôle of Iopas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens gives a tenor little to do. The aria is ideal for Mr. Flórez, and he sings it with great distinction despite a top C that is slightly pinched.

With the often Wagnerian dimensions of Massenet’s orchestrations requiring a degree of vocal amplitude that it is unlikely that Mr. Flórez could ever supply, the title rôle in Werther is a part that he almost certainly will never sing in staged productions in larger opera houses. One of the most exemplary traits of his artistry is his cognizance of the capabilities of his own vocal endowment, and aside from a few informed experiments—Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at Pesaro in 2013, for instance—he has maintained careful control of his repertoire, avoiding singing certain rôles in certain houses for the sake of preserving his vocal prowess. In the context of a studio recording of arias, though, Werther is a tantalizing prospect, and Mr. Flórez’s performances of ‘Ô Nature, pleine de grâce’ and ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ are the musical and artistic pinnacles of L’Amour. In the first aria, Werther’s paean to the seductive dominion of nature, the passion in Mr. Flórez’s singing reaches ecstatic heights of rapture, and his bright, somewhat metallic timbre shimmers under the glaring sunlight of Massenet’s music. ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ is one of the most familiar arias in the tenor canon, and the variety of voices that has sung the aria effectively—lyric tenors like Giuseppe di Stefano, Juan Oncina, Cesare Valletti, and Alain Vanzo, as well as larger voices like those of Carlo Bergonzi, Franco Corelli, and Georges Thill—is fascinating. In a large opera house, the effort that would be required for Mr. Flórez’s well-projected voice to compete with the orchestra would be troublingly risky. As recorded here, Mr. Flórez sings the aria strongly, with only the top A♯s sounding strained. The sad truth is that the voices that have the necessary breadth to sing Werther in larger opera houses are rarely beautiful, and Mr. Flórez supplies the focused, attractive tone that makes ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ not just an impressive but a commanding aria. Crucially, Mr. Flórez sounds like a young, poetically-inclined, brooding young man undone by imprudent love.

Ultimately, L’Amour is the rare recital disc that has abundant commercial and artistic appeal. It is both an exploration of a facet of the career of one of the 21st Century’s best singers and an intriguing vista of one path that this marvelous voice may travel in seasons to come. After the auspicious triumph of his Pesaro début in Matilde di Shabran, Juan Diego Flórez has been a singer from whom consistent greatness is expected. In this recital of repertoire for which he has obvious affection, he delivers greatness even when the difficulties of the music challenge him in unexpected ways. Too many singers mistake clinical perfection for greatness. Like any artist of integrity, Juan Diego Flórez aims for perfection in the selections on L’Amour, but he also makes no attempts at artificially disguising his vocal vulnerabilities. Under the best of care, voices change with the passage of time: only the most sensitive singers’ techniques and artistries evolve in kind. L’Amour offers plentiful doses of the fleetness, flexibility, and spine-tingling top notes that characterize this singer’s best work, yet what makes L’Amour more than another pleasant recital disc is the very quality that defines it: love.