Nine bull’s-eye high C’s fired off with parade-ground panache: this is what the aria “Ah, mes amis” demands of the bumpkin Tonio in Donizetti’s screwball comedy “La Fille du Régiment.” Most tenors are thrilled to get through it once.
In February 2007 the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez made history at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, when he nailed it twice. The last soloist to sing an encore on that hallowed stage was the Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” in 1933. The ban on the practice goes back to Toscanini. Since then only the chorus “Va, pensiero,” the song of the enslaved Israelites in Verdi’s “Nabucco,” has been repeated. Italians regard it almost as their second, superior national anthem.
“Such an uproar,” Mr. Flórez said this month at the Metropolitan Opera, between rehearsals for Laurent Pelly’s production of the opera opposite the scene-stealing soprano Natalie Dessay as Marie, the Daughter of the Regiment. (The premiere is on Monday.) Mr. Flórez had just flown in from Lima, Peru, where he had not only sung his first Duke in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” but also exchanged vows with the German-born Julia Trappe. The wedding was an encore too, the couple having been married privately last April in Vienna. Their ceremony at Lima Cathedral, the first wedding there since 1949, had the news media in a frenzy.
“I’d done encores of ‘Ah, mes amis’ before,” said Mr. Flórez, 35. “Many times, in Bologna, in Genoa, in Lecce, in Japan. But Milan can be a little snobbish. There’s an effort there to put singers down a bit. I couldn’t believe the fuss.” Even sports magazines took notice, comparing Mr. Flórez to Maradona. A replay at the Met is not impossible. The company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, says the house has no policy in this matter.
The last Tonio to knock the world on its ear was the very young Luciano Pavarotti, for whom the lyrical Donizetti was a stepping stone to the heavier Verdi and Puccini. Mr. Flórez is a different creature entirely: a dedicated bel canto specialist, fluent in scales, runs and fancywork far beyond Pavarotti’s comfort zone.
The charismatic example of Mr. Flórez is inspiring a whole new generation of tenors, among them two Americans: Lawrence Brownlee, 35, often tapped for productions when Mr. Flórez moves on; and Alek Shrader, 26, now at the Juilliard Opera Center, where in November he sang the fiendishly difficult title role of Rossini’s “Comte Ory,” an opera expected at the Met with Mr. Flórez in 2010-11.
Last season Met audiences witnessed Mr. Flórez in all his glory as Count Almaviva in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.” His performance crested, as Rossini intended, with the eight-minute pyrotechnics of “Cessa di più resistere.”
That aria, the opera’s last, establishes Almaviva, rather than the barber Figaro, as the true hero of the story. Yet “Barbiere” (which received its premiere under the title “Almaviva”) was long performed without it. As recently as 1988, when the American tenor Rockwell Blake reintroduced “Cessa di più resistere” at the Met, its novelty value occasioned a news release.
In the latest production Mr. Flórez included it as a matter of course, bringing down the house. “Very early in my career, I got used to singing my parts without cuts,” Mr. Flórez said. “The decision was not only mine. Ernesto Palacio always pushed for that.”
A former bel canto tenor and fellow Peruvian, Mr. Palacio has acted as teacher, agent, adviser and confidant to Mr. Flórez throughout his career. He is one of several forerunners Mr. Flórez acknowledges: in the 1950s, Luigi Alva, another Lima native; in the 1970s, apart from Mr. Palacio, Francisco Araiza, a Mexican.
“They had wonderful polish and style,” Mr. Flórez said. “Then, at a certain point, the Americans came in: Rockwell Blake, Chris Merritt. They sang with such virtuosity. It was the first time people heard singing with such breath control, rapidity, color. I’m lucky to come after them. I like to listen, to study. I see a span of development, which I am part of. I have learned from what they created.”
But unlike his predecessors, who wowed the experts, Mr. Flórez also has mass appeal. In a recent call from Seattle, Bartlett Sher, who directed him in the Met “Barbiere,” described the Flórez effect. “Juan Diego is fun to watch,” Mr. Sher said. “He has a great, very natural confidence and a relaxed nobility, together with what Noël Coward would call a little twinkle: something slightly wicked and playful and fun. He has a delightful sense of entitlement onstage, and he never makes singing seem intimidating or too much. He keeps you with him. You feel you could be his friend.”
Thanks to Mr. Flórez, opera houses are flinging their doors open to frisky young tenors with agile technique. The bright ones know better than to copy him.
Mr. Brownlee, who won both the Richard Tucker Award and the Marian Anderson Award in 2006, followed Mr. Flórez in the Met “Barbiere” last year, receiving a hero’s welcome.
“You won’t find a bigger fan of Juan Diego’s singing than me,” Mr. Brownlee said recently from Toulouse, France, where he was appearing in Rossini’s “Turco in Italia.” “He definitely raises the standard. He’s said that our voices are very similar in certain ways. I think in some ways they are, and in some ways we’re night and day. People are always going to compare me to him, because, one, we sing the exact same repertory, and, two, we perform on the same stages. I couldn’t compete with him, but it’s not about that. I’m so inspired by what he does. He makes me want to go into the practice room and perfect what I do.”
Mr. Shrader made his professional debut with Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2006 as Almaviva (without “Cessa di più resistere,” which he did sing last month in a broadcast concert with the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra in Georgia). Early in 2007 he appeared with the Gotham Chamber Opera in Rossini’s “Signor Bruschino.” But his biggest moment to date was on the Met stage as a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. There he tossed off stylish, vivid accounts of Mozart’s florid “Il mio tesoro” from “Don Giovanni” and that Flórez specialty, “Ah, mes amis.”
After a further season in training as an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, Mr. Shrader will head for Germany, to take up major roles in Rossini and Mozart at a leading house. “Flórez has done what opera companies all over are trying to do,” he said recently, “namely to get people to notice opera.”
Asked about his vocal models, Mr. Shrader gave Pavarotti pride of place. “I listen to Pavarotti a lot, to be as organic and as easy as he was,” Mr. Shrader said. “But it’s important to sing in your own voice. No one will sing like him. What you can do is let the music come out of your body as he did.”
When learning new roles, Mr. Shrader avoids listening to recordings until he has formed clear ideas of his own. Then he checks them out selectively. “For my own repertory,” he said, “I go to Flórez. I go to the best.”
Last month, in a Juilliard recital, Mr. Shrader sang a love song from “Barbiere” to his own guitar accompaniment, conjuring up Almaviva’s beloved in the balcony so palpably that people turned to see if she was there. To judge by that excerpt, Mr. Shrader is the most romantic Almaviva of these three, the most innocent of heart, for whom the world is new. At the Met, Mr. Brownlee made the sunniest sound, paradoxically coupled with the giddiest temperament, and Mr. Flórez showed the most mercurial personality, the greatest sense of mischief and the fieriest coloratura. Such distinctions make it worthwhile to keep revisiting war horses; by the same token the personalities artists like these reveal can spark life into works long forgotten.
“Matilde di Shabran,” for instance, dusted off for the first time in more than a century in 1996 by the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy. Mr. Flórez was on hand, 23 and fresh from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he had completed the training begun at the conservatory in Lima and as a private student of Andrés Santamaria.
Spreading the lessons out over long hours, Mr. Santamaria and the young Mr. Flórez would take time out for cool drinks of whiskey and Coke, rustle up thick steaks and rice, and listen to the kind of singing Mr. Santamaria had a passion for: Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Almaviva’s morning song “Ecco ridente,” shot through with the intricate, swift-moving vocal lines that kindled in Mr. Flórez a love for bel canto.
His professional debut was to have been as a walk-on in Pesaro. But Bruce Ford, a noted American bel canto specialist, withdrew on short notice from the role of the woman-hating tyrant Corradino, and Mr. Flórez was pressed into service.
“It’s a strange opera,” Mr. Flórez said of the experience a few summers later. “There’s no aria for the tenor, but the ensembles are phenomenal.” Just how phenomenal may be heard on a live Decca recording of a Pesaro revival in 2006. On YouTube the astonishing first stab Mr. Flórez took at the role plays on, epitomizing the confidence Mr. Sher speaks of. The stage-hungry dramatic ferocity is as startling as the technical bravura that makes his lean, intensely focused voice blaze like a hero’s.
“I don’t like it,” Mr. Flórez said the other day. “The high notes are ugly. There’s no legato. I like myself better now.”
His mantra now is lightness. “When I was in my teens, singing pop music, I tried to make my voice heavy, like a man,” Mr. Flórez said, caricaturing the dull, macho sound. “You can hear that on YouTube too. Voices lose agility as they get older. It’s common for tenors to lose their high notes, for their voices to get heavier. Many go into heavier parts. But technique is like an antioxidant. It maintains your high notes, your agility. Maybe you need to make more effort.”
Mr. Flórez cited the Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, an immaculate technician renowned for the freshness of his voice into his 70s. “I will add roles, but nothing heavier,” Mr. Flórez said. “I am faithful to my repertoire. That’s what I’m known for. That’s what people want to hear me in.”