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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Juan Diego Florez: Revival Of The Tenore Contraltino

[Today I am pleased to offer to readers another in our series of guest commentaries, this one by Mr. Darren Seacliffe, from Singapore. Darren is by far the youngest guest writer we have had in what I consider to be an excellent series generally.  He is an undergraduate student in his early 20's pursuing a degree in a private university in Singapore.  His interest in opera spans a wide variety of genres, from Rossini to 20th century opera prior to 1945. His areas of greatest interest are Rossini, bel canto, Verdi, and German operetta.  I will only add that Mr. Seacliffe's knowledge of opera history—especially for one so young, is truly extraordinary!  Here is a blossoming music critic if ever I saw one, and that is a happy sign indeed, for all kinds of reasons! Edmund StAustell .]


There are two opera composers without whom Italian opera would be much different: Mozart and Rossini.  It was Rossini who elaborated upon and further developed the innovations which the great Mozart had previously made in Italian opera with respect to its musical structure and theatricality. Unlike Mozart, whose artistry has been given due recognition and whose works have been periodically revived following his death,  Rossini was originally dismissed as a composer of farcical comedies, and—even worse—his works eventually faded out of the repertoire into neglect and oblivion. It has only been in recent years that Rossini has been recognized as a great composer who built on Mozart's work by facilitating Italian opera's transition from baroque opera to the genre we see and recognize today, largely through the opera serie he composed for the virtuosi at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples; works which had earlier been dismissed as contributing little to the development of opera.

Much credit has to be given to the pioneering generation of Rossini tenors Rockwell Blake, Chris Merritt, Bruce Ford, William Matteuzzi and Ernesto Palacio (Juan Diego Florez' teacher,manager and mentor) for re-introducing these serious operas to the public after years of neglect and oblivion. Despite the retirement of most if not all of the tenors mentioned above, Rossini has not faded away. Many major opera houses continue to revive his comic and tragic masterpieces and there has been at least one major Rossini Opera Festival at Pesaro. One tenor deserves more credit for this than any other, and that is superstar Juan Diego Florez.

Juan Diego Florez was born in 1973 in Lima, Peru. He entered the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Lima at the age of 17.  He studied under Andrés Santa María, with the original intention of singing popular and folk music.  However, a classical voice soon emerged. Even so, he had not found where his strength lay until a chance meeting with his great predecessor Ernesto Palacio, who mentored him in becoming a Rossini tenor. His professional debut took place in the Rossini Opera Festival of 1988 when he stood in for an ailing Bruce Ford in a historical revival of one of Rossini's latter operas, Matilde di Shabran. From there on, there was no turning back and he began to attain to greater and greater heights as the years went by. Many performances were especially noteworthy, including the Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La Donna del Lago, Zelmira, and La Fille de Regiment.  

Just as Pavarotti was the first to excel at roles Bellini had originally composed for the great Rubini, Florez excelled, through his amazing technique, in singing the stratospheric coloratura Rossini had composed for the virtuosi of the Teatro San Carlo— Andrea Nozzari, Giovanni David and Adolphe Nourritt. However, this alone does not place him at the head of the many bel canto tenors we are blessed with today like Lawrence Brownlee, Antonio Siragusa, Colin Lee and Barry Banks. What makes Florez the undisputed best of these tenors is the additional factor of the light and fresh beauty of his voice. Here is a video of Florez singing an aria from Rossini's La Donna del Lago; one which clearly shows these qualities which he possesses in abundance. The aria has a long orchestral introduction.  I recommend you advance the radio button to 2:20 to start:

To my knowledge, Florez is one of the few Rossini tenors who not only has the technical skill to perform this aria without problems but is also able to perform the aria with the grace and lightness that the first Uberto—Giacomo David—might have brought to his performance. This is one achievement that cannot be underestimated, considering how previous Ubertos—Rockwell Blake and Dalmacio Gonzalez—were unable to bring the role to its fullest potential: Blake due to the raw nature of his voice and Gonzalez due to technical issues.

As mentioned, Florez's big break came in 1996, when he was asked to substitute for the ailing tenor Bruce Ford in a revival of Rossini's Matilde di Shabran at the Rossini Opera Festival, on 2 to 3 weeks' notice. Can you believe that he was able to give a performance of this quality, having had so little time to prepare a role that had not been performed in more than 100 years? He is truly extraordinary. Turn your volume up full for this performance, recorded at a certain distance from the stage:

Florez' star began to shine in the opera world from that moment on! Blessed with great talent and technical skill, all joined to a beautiful voice overflowing with freshness, he has consolidated his place as one of today's greatest bel canto tenors. Additionally, he maintains a high performance standard in his acting and conducts himself with exemplary professionalism.  Here you will see what I mean:

This performance took place just hours after Florez's wife gave birth in a New York hospital—a shining example of his professionalism!

Not only does Florez sing beautifully, but he has become an accomplished actor. Toward the beginning of his career, he had been criticized by some for his acting, but he showed his true professionalism by taking the negative press seriously and working hard on all aspects of his acting, to the point that he is now praised.  Given the hard work and professionalism he continues to show, Florez' future prospects seem bright indeed.  Some predecessors, such as Kunde and Lopardo, moved on into heavier roles as they got older, and one wonders what roles Florez might next attempt in the bel canto repertoire. Perhaps Roberto Devereux, Percy, Gennaro or even Edgardo? Before Pavarotti passed away, he acknowledged Florez as his successor. Not yet, certainly, but given the amount of progress he is making, I for one believe it is a distinct possibility.

-Darren Seacliffe



Edmund St. Austell said...

I would like to thank Mr. Seacliffe for a superb article, well written and very much to the point. He has done what it had not occured to me to do when I earlier thought of doing a piece on Florez, and that is to place the great tenor's career in direct context with the history of Rossini's serious operas. A brilliant move, and a very profitable one! Thank you again, Darren, for an excellent article on Florez.

Anonymous said...

Wow. A tour-de-Force! Great article on Juan Diego Florez! One of the better ones I've seen, and your right...putting his story in with Rossini really makes sense. Where do you find these people, Edmund:-)

robert macafee

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha:-) Well, Robert, it's a big, big world out there:-) Makes me happy that the blog is developing a wide reach. Yes, I agree. Mr.Seacliffe has written a superb piece, and he really puts Florz in context, which is rare.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

very nice! I really like JDF, and I don't think I ever realized how much of what he did was Rossini. I see now! good article! Thank you Mr Seacliffe!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for the comment. Yes, he does more than Rossini, obviously--I know his Nemorino has been praised--but Mr. Seacliffe does indeed show convincingly what a huge connection exists between Florez and the Rossini serious operas. Thanks again for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen the word "contraltino" before. What kind of tenor is a "contraltino" tenor?.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Hi Martha: Always nice to hear from you. Thanks for writing in! "Contraltino" is a word not much used today, although it is a good one for describing Florez. Basically, it's an old 19th-century term for a tenor who sings on the very edge of the falsetto register, (i.e., moving in the direction of contralto, hence the name)making it possible for him to sing very florid coloratura passages such as Rossini wrote for his tenors.

Thanks for the question!

JD Hobbes said...

Excellent contribution. You are right that your blog reaches the entire world and you will continue to find interesting and well-informed readers.We also appreciate the fact that you monitor the comments and avoid the trash that permeates the www.

Good job!

corax said...

bravo darren! please write lots more for this blog!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes! I think you are the most faithful correspondent in the world:-) Have you even missed a blog issue in the last three years? I don't remember it, ha! Thank you very much for your toughtful comments. They mean a lot to me. A far-reaching blog, over three years old now, is a heck of a lot of work for an old man:-) I greatly appreciate the readership of so many good people, such as yourself, and yes, we make a real effort to make sure the quality of everthing stays high. Again, thanks!

p.s. Isn't Mr. Seacliffe amazing! My children are in their 40's.., old enough to be his father:-) I get blown away when I see an undergraduate college student write a piece like this!

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Corax: Thank you, my dear friend! Another most faithful correspondent, in about any language you choose to speak:-) Your comments are appreciated, very much, and I agree with you in your enthusiasm for Mr. Seacliffe.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Please disregard my earlier comment, Edmund.

I'd like to thank Prof. Edmund for bestowing upon me the opportunity of posting a humble little article on his blog. I'd also like to thank the other readers for the encouraging comments they have posted.

Florez, yes, did sing other bel canto operas by Bellini and Donizetti. He's really good in Bellini but I think that his voice needs to get weightier before he can really do well in Donizetti. A weightier voice will help to lend more impact to the singers' performance during Donizetti's operas. Take Pavarotti's Nemorino and Lopardo's Ernesto for instance. Both might not have technical skill as stunning as Florez displays but their weightier voices help to give more touching and emotional performances.

I've listened to all the serious operas Rossini composed for the Teatro San Carlo virtuosos. The performances I've heard so far, though given by masters such as the retired Rockwell Blake and William Matteuzzi, don't really give me a feel of what they sounded like when Rossini heard them. Yes, singing technique-wise, we can no longer replicate that during Rossini's time. Singing did change very much these two centuries but in terms of the sound, that may be possible.

Florez's not only really agile and very skillful in navigating the stratospheric coloratura registers that defeated tenors till the 70s. he doesn't bleat or make any shrill noises the higher the notes he reaches. His light voice smoothly delivers the high notes in a way which makes them sound easy. When have we seen such a tenor like that?

For the first time, in Florez, we may get to hear the Rossinian tenor roles composed for Giovanni David, the resident virtuoso tenore contraltino at the Teatro San Carlo, as he could have sung them. Considering what we've had before that, I'll say we're really very lucky.

One last thing I'd like to add is that Florez has sparked off a Rossini renaissance with several Rossinian tenors trailing in his path like Lawrence Brownlee for instance. Brownlee reminds me of what Pavarotti could have done if he chose to keep within a conducive repertoire.

As Mr. Florez goes older, one need not be surprised that he'll move into weightier roles but I hope that he and his manager, Mr. Palacio, can manage this in such a way that we'll continue to hear performances of this quality from him for the next 10 if not 20 years. Thankfully, he does not get tempted into the Three Tenors bandwagon and risk ruining his voice to satisfy the public as his fame grows every day.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you once again, Darren, for a fine article!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Darren for the excellent article. It’s hard to believe now that Rossini was dismissed by theaters for years.

I understand Darren’s admiration for Florez – J.D.F. is a phenomenal singer.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for your comment, my dear friend. I always appreciate the view from Russia:-) Thanks again.

DanPloy said...

I should say firstly that I like Rossini and I am pleased his operas are now getting due attention.

But now to Florez. I have to say, despite his vocal agility and beautiful tone, he does leave me a little cold. In your latter comment you exactly pick on the reason why, the lack of depth (weight?) in his voice lends it a cold unemotional quality that I don't like. I don't think this is bel canto singing. It is singing of enormous technical ability but there is no emotional engagement with the music. To put it crudely it is just a load of notes on the page.

I accept that may be, and is in all likelihood, how the operas sounded when they first performed. But I wonder if that was how Rossini wanted them to sound. If he wrote those notes then the 'falsetto' type of voice might have been the only singers he had available who could reach them.

This is my own opinion, but I think Rossini wrote those operas for the public and to keep him in food and they were very popular, as they should be. They were frothy desserts, fun, fantastic to hear, (and still are). But what he was working towards was William Tell. Florez will never be able to sing that. William Tell is the bridge to Verdi. That does not mean a progression in terms of quality, we all still love Titian even though we have Rothko, but it was what Rossini was striving for.

I think bel canto singing needs the singer to embrace the music (and of course the music has to be great). Florez is skipping along the top of the music and not diving in. I think Bruce Ford and Chris Merritt better engaged with the music (and Rockwell Blake didn't) by having heavier voices, it somehow lends more sonority to the singing. They still had the top notes but, especially in Chris Merritt's case, they were produced in a different voice, which added an emotional quality to them. The apparently effortless singing of Florez gives the singing no drama. Merritt did not have a beautiful voice unfortunately but I do prefer to hear his Rossini. Perhaps a better example would be Cecilia Bortoli, who mezzo voice gives that weight to her singing and for me, adds beauty and emotion which a high soprano voice cannot give.

I don't believe bel canto singing means pretty singing. I don't mean that as a derogatory comment for Florez, if I was ever lucky enough to see him I am sure I would thoroughly enjoy the evening. It is just my own view that I need something more from my singers and whilst this may not be 'authentic' it just might be what Rossini heard in his head.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for an interesting comment! Something to ponder, for sure! I will leave it to Mr. Seacliffe to respond if he so wishes. You certainly have a broad knowledge of the subject matter! Thanks again!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Hello Dan, sorry for the long comment. There are 2 parts. Please bear with me here. I want to answer your questions in detail.

First, you're right. To tell you the truth, when I first listened to Florez sing, that's what I felt. He had a beautiful light voice that could scale up and down the stratospheric coloratura registers with ease but he didn't really sound very much involved. To put it simply, he sounds as though he's singing with a touch-and-go approach.

This changed after a book on Rossini which I read. In all the opera serie which Rossini composed for the Teatro San Carlo, you'll see 2 types of tenor roles, 1 is the role for the darker,heavier and more powerful baritenor. You'll see him as the villain or father-figure. The other is for the lighter, more agile and flexible tenore contraltino. You'll see him as the lover or the young man.

I understand and can sympathize with your enthusiasm for Bruce Ford and Chris Merritt. I like Bruce Ford because of his sterling contributions to Opera Rara.

I think you feel that they sound more emotionally involved in their performances because they have weightier voices and more substantial music to sing, isn't it? If you look at the roles they are usually cast in and more importantly, who premiered them, you'll see that their roles are created by Andrea Nozzari, mature or villain roles for darker, heavier and more powerful Rossinian tenors (baritenors). Nozzari was known for his acting ability too so unsurprisingly, he got meatier roles.

As for Florez, the roles he usually sings are those created by the other virtuoso tenor at the Teatro San Carlo, Giovanni David, who usually sang the lover roles for lighter tenors who had more agile and flexible voices (tenore contraltino). These roles sound lighter and comparatively less substantial as compared to baritenor roles, partly because of this and also partly because David had little acting ability.

I've yet to see Florez sing any Nozzari roles so I won't compare him against Ford and Merritt. His predecessors in these roles are actually Rockwell Blake and William Matteuzzi.

I don't know how you feel about Blake but from my experience, Blake's the type of singer you can only appreciate if you've got more experience. I'll only recommend him to people who've heard other Rossinian tenors. Yes, I know he's a great man but he has that ugly guttural sound, don't you agree? Nevertheless, you don't see any other tenors who've been as able as he is in navigating the coloratura registers. In terms of coloratural agility and flexibility, I'll say he's second to none but Florez. If you had problems with him in the past, try listening to him again with this in mind. This is an observation I made back then.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Secondly, you are right about bel canto. Yes, it is about pretty singing where the singers display vocal pyrotechnics but unlike baroque, you need some emotional involvement and vocal acting from the singers. In this sense, Florez isn't a bel canto tenor because of the ''weight'' of his voice. For Rubini roles in Bellini's operas, maybe Florez can get away with it but he wouldn't be able to in Donizetti's operas, which were written for weightier tenors. One can only hope that his voice will get weightier as he gets older. With such a beautiful high tenor, he'll be really interesting to hear.

Thirdly, I may be a Rossini fan but personally, I don't like William Tell. The interesting parts are spaced too far apart for me to keep awake. Personal views aside, yes, Rossini did compose several frothy desserts but I won't say he was working towards William Tell. William Tell was an experiment. He wanted to try his hand at a new type of opera. One that will fit in with the new trends that were coming up in the opera world then. It's a bit too far off to act as a bridge to Verdi. I'll go into that some other time. If you're looking for his peaks, I'll say they are Semiramide in terms of opera serie and Ory in terms of comedy. Ory is the frothiest dessert Rossini ever made. Just listen to the duet by Florez whose link I posted in the article and you'll see what I mean.
Of course Barbiere, Cenerentola and Italiana are his most popular but sometimes even the best jokes run thin if you hear them too often. I don't get the same feeling with Ory. If it's not as popular, I'll say it's because it's not as easy to do full justice to. Florez is the best Ory and we have to wait for the 21st century to see that.

DanPloy said...

Darren, your comments about the restrictions the Florez roles have on his singing are interesting. As Pavarotti said about Ernesto in Don Pasquale; 'who seems to mope around by himself, a bit of a jerk'. Florez's voice seems to have consigned him to play these characters.

It is of course my own particular taste in singers and opera. I have CDs of Gimenez and Matteuzzi who I think have similar voices to Florez, and in particular, despite the light voice, do enjoy Matteuzzi's musicality. But then he has also sung I Puritani.

However in Rossini I tend to look towards the older singers who, whilst perhaps not having the extended range of the modern Rossinians imbue their singing with more emotion, in my view.

Examples would be Fernando de Lucia or Dino Borgioli:

I willing accept missing the odd 'E' sharp for the extra depth that is brought to the role.

De Lucia also sang Canio!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Dan, yes, I'm afraid that Florez, for the rest of his life, would have to perform the tenore contraltino roles of young lover in Rossini and perhaps a few Donizetti and Bellini roles in which he can get away with the lightness of his voice like Rubini's creations for Bellini (with the exception of Gualtiero from Il Pirata), Donizetti's Tonio and Ernesto, unless his voice gets weightier with age. Even so, perhaps a way out for him will be to try singing the French repertoire, not as in Gounod or Massenet but perhaps the operas by the opera-comique composers Auber, Boieldieu, Herold and so forth. He has done well in Ory so I suppose he could shine as Fra Diavolo.

About Pavarotti's comment,you can see it that way because Ernesto creeps around throughout the whole opera, creeping on his uncle and later Norina. Depending on his uncle for financial support in the first half and depending on his girlfriend to protect his inheritance and their engagement in the second half. However, personally, I tend to have some sympathy for Ernesto. I do have an affinity with the character.

Hmm..Borgioli's a really good lyric tenor. I enjoyed listening to his performances. de Lucia's someone I still have trouble with till today. Both may be closer to Rossini than Florez but frankly, I wouldn't take their work in Rossini seriously because I suspect that they couldn't sing anything other than Almaviva. During their time, just Barbiere was ever performed.

Dan, if you're looking for Rossinian tenors who have more weight in their voices and are able to convey more emotion and feeling, similar to de Lucia and Borgioli, I'll recommend the first generation of Rossinian tenors: Luigi Alva, Nicola Monti and Ugo Benelli. Of the three, I'll say Benelli's the best. He has a wider range than the other two and he's a fine vocal actor.
(Ugo Benelli in the rondo)

I'm glad that you like William Matteuzzi. He initially was someone I merely put up with. You know, when he plunges into the high notes, his voice gets really shrill and the sound that comes out makes you think he's bleating. Notwithstanding this, I'm still thankful that he was able to take on those tenore contraltino roles in the Rossini opera serie he helped to revive. He might not be really good but at least he could perform them. And that's very important considering the fact that there was nobody before him.

Anonymous said...

Quick comment - sorry it's so late, but I just ran across the article. Wasn't his big break in Pesaro in 1996, not 1988?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Hang on a little bit. I'll email Mr. Seacliffe and see if he can get you an answer.