Juan Diego Florez at Opera House: With metallic voice, tenor sets gold standard

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez didn't sing anything new, but he gave generously of his greatest hits at the Kennedy Center on Sunday.
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez didn't sing anything new, but he gave generously of his greatest hits at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. (For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:25 PM

For a long time, opera pundits were on the lookout for the Fourth Tenor. Juan Diego Florez, the Peruvian superstar, is not it. He's a different animal entirely. With his light, ringing voice, he is not suited to all the bread-and-butter romantic roles (in "La Boheme" or "Tosca"), or some of the schmaltz, of the Three Tenors' repertory. His real strength is the earlier bel canto operas of Rossini, Donizetti or Bellini, with their rapid-fire strings of notes looping up and down the staff, dotted with high Cs like flecks of gold.

But if you want an exciting tenor, Florez is it - as he showed once again at a solo opera concert at the Kennedy Center Opera House this weekend in the presence of the last Three Tenor standing, Placido Domingo. The Washington National Opera - where Domingo remains general manager through June - has supplemented its shortened, five-opera season with two concerts featuring big stars (Bryn Terfel, the Welsh bass-baritone, will sing another on March 12). This led to an embarrassment of riches: the opening of "Madama Butterfly" on Saturday night, followed by Florez on Sunday afternoon.

Florez is a brilliant singer in every sense. He's wonderful, and his voice has the hard sheen of ringing metal, flashing out across the auditorium like a drawn sword.

Few singers have been as savvy about their voices and careers as Florez has; with admirable self-knowledge, he has built on a rock-solid vocal technique, resisted pushing his instrument too far, too fast, and has therefore continued singing consistently at the same high level ever since he burst onto the international scene as a last-minute substitute at the Rossini Festival in Italy in 1996.

Consistency is what he offered on Sunday: He didn't sing anything new, but he gave generously of his greatest hits, singing 10 arias (including three encores), a healthy amount for an all-opera program, and all beautifully executed. Admittedly, the first two - "Pria che spunti" from "Il Matrimonio Segreto" and "Cessa di piu resistere," the flowery original finale of "Barber of Seville") - felt a little dry. Two o'clock on a sunny afternoon is awfully early to ask a singer to hit his stride, especially when the orchestra under Alessandro Vitiello sounded a little hung over after "Madama Butterfly" the night before.

But his final aria on the program's first half, from Verdi's early comedy "Un Giorno di Regno," caught fire, and after that the voice gained in warmth and vigor through several reliable chestnuts: "A, leve-toi soleil," from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," and two "Rigoletto" arias.

He closed the main program with his signature, "Ah! mes amis" from Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment," complete with nine high Cs that Florez tosses off, smiling and holding the last one out beyond the bounds of what is tasteful, but in the very best opera-tenor tradition, bringing the audience screaming to its feet.

Keeping so true to and focused on one way of singing means that Florez's voice is monochromatic: He has an edgy, metallic, slightly driven, slightly nasal sound that is not always strictly beautiful (particularly not in the coloratura passages of the first two arias).

Only in the Gounod and, a bit, in "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'elisir d'amore," his first encore, did he much vary the color and timbre, seeking more softness and warmth. This nasal quality has kept me from warming to him in the past; it can get a bit buzzy, particularly a whole afternoon of it.

But whatever you think of the sound, there's no question that Florez is a fine singer, musician, artist - and, among tenors, today's gold standard. Not a Fourth Tenor, but one of the first rank.

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