As he moves into heavier repertoire, one composer has been rather absent from the repertoire of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez – Mozart. Listening to him dominate the bel canto repertoire, it has always been of great interest to hear this brilliant and polished singing actor take a stab at a composer equally noted for his polish and finesse. The tenor has taken a few forays into the work of the great master, though not enough to truly understand his approach.
Flórez has given us a taste of just that in his latest album, named “Mozart.” Packed with 10 different arias from many different operas, this sampling says quite a bit about how the bel canto superstar could potentially go about interpreting a Mozart character. And safe to say, it might not be what you expect.
First off, the album is suitable for all listeners. For first-timers, the selections feature the best of the best from Mozart’s library of tenor arias. So the quality of music is high from one aria to the next. For the seasoned Mozart goers, this might not seem all that thrilling. Most people already have their favorite version of “Il mio tesoro” or “Fuor del mar,” etc. And Flórez seems to anticipate this in the album because he provides those listeners with a little of his special sauce.
To Ornament or Not to Ornament?
Performance practice of Mozart’s work is rather divided on the practice of ornamenting the music of the composer. On one side are the purists who feel that Mozart’s music is so perfect that it must not be touched, even if it repeats itself. On the other side of the aisle are those that believe that historically informed performance practice would validate the idea of adding in ornamentation to repeated sections. It was a touchstone of the Baroque era which preceded Mozart and remained in fashion during the bel canto years that ensued.
Flórez’s recordings clearly denote his siding with the second camp, every single aria featuring variations on coloratura, some less subtle than others. Of course, the purist will have a field day analyzing why some coloratura runs or cadenzas, which make ample use of Flórez’s unmatched upper range are not suitable to the Mozart style and are more appropriate to a Rossini or Donizetti aria. But those more open to the approach will find something else to admire in the album. For none of the ornamentations themselves are gratuitous in effect. Just listen to his rendition of “Il Mio Tesoro,” where ornaments on the main melody sweeten the phrase, caressing it all the more and emphasizing Don Ottavio’s care for Donna Anna. When he interpolates high notes, they are pointed and aligned with the text of “a vendicar io vado.” This is particularly prominent in the cadenza at the aria’s climax. Or in “Fuor del mar,” the variations on the coloratura add to the sense of fury outlined in the aria.
He makes this style the signature of the album and his case is rather compelling overall, his additions in some of the slower arias (“Un aura amorosa” and “Dalla sua pace” spring to mind) enriching already glorious music and maximizing the lyrical qualities of Mozart’s music. It also serves as a stark reminder that Mozart was the true father of the bel canto style and makes the compelling argument that his music could be approached with this concept in mind. We are in a moment where the possibilities of opera are constantly being tested and questioned, and this is a subtle but substantial argument to be made.
Bel Canto Singing
But the album isn’t just about whether Flórez’s ornamentations are the only interpretative choices the tenor has made. There is a lot more music here worth examining.
In compiling this album, the tenor and his collaborators have clearly taken great care with each work as there is no single aria that does not have a sense of polish or emotional arc. “Fuor del mar,” which kicks off the CD, is the perfect jolt of energy, the tenor’s enviable coloratura spot on, the sense of growing fury amassing throughout the aria. He follows that up with “Dies Bildnis is Bezaubernd Schön” from “Die Zauberflöte,” which is sculpted elegantly with some of the finest German diction on record. The beauty of love is shown equally in his caressing sound as in his delicate pronunciation.
More virtuosity ensues in a delightful “Spande Al Sole in Faccia” from “Il Re Pastore,” before Flórez delivers a rather pained interpretation of “Il Mio Tesoro.” Even the gentle opening lines seem anguished, their repetition moreso from the caressing ornamentations. Flórez makes ample use of his heavier vocal capacities in the more intense sections of the aria in which Ottavio turns his mind to vengeance. And yet, the coloratura runs in this aria, in particular, are breathtaking. The lengthy passage in the middle of the aria is usually sung in two breaths by most tenors, simply because it is so challenging to throw together in the single breath that the composer intended. But Flórez throws it off with one breath in awe-inspiring fashion.
Forays into “La Clemenza di Tito” show two sides to the ruler – “Del Più Sublime Soglio” and “Se All’Impero, Amici Mei.” From this two arias we get a sense of the dignity one always demands from the benevolent ruler, while also feeling a more violent potential.
The next three arias, “Un’Aura Amorosa” from “Così fan tutte,” “Iche Baue Ganz” from “Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail” and “Dalla Sua Pace” give us a more lyrical approach from the tenor, the bel canto influence at its greatest. It is in these arias that the tenor takes his greatest liberties with tempi, sprinkling in subtle rubati, all in good taste. The rising coloratura lines at the tail end of the German arias are particularly appealing amongst these selections.
One Final Surprise
But the real treat of the album might just be the final selection, the concert aria “Misero! O Sogno,” K. 431. The entire aria is a predecessor to the double aria structure of bel canto, complete with preceding recitative passages. The entire aria is one massive character arc, 10 minutes in length, that moves from the pleas of a trapped mind to a lament, to full out fury and despair. And the tenor captures every single mood with breathtaking vocal precision, each line of the recitative nail-biting in its ability to not only express the mood of the character but the suspenseful conflict. The first section of the aria, “Aura che intorno spiri” is just legato perfection, the tenor’s every phrase adding to a sense of longing. He holds out a few choice high notes to further this effect of hoping for the unreachable. When the music shifts to its aggressive counterpart, the tenor is right on point, his forcefulness coming to the forefront. The tempi fluctuate to suit the increasingly agitated style of the aria, the tenor growing and growing in his pointedness of phrasing. It all brings back the mood from the opening “Fuor del mar,” giving the entire album a rather dark circular structure, a rather interesting choice considering that Mozart is often associated with sunshine and brightness. And if the bel canto connections weren’t clear enough, the aria itself ends with the famed chord progressions that are so emblematic of codas in Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini operas.
In the pit, maestro Riccardo Minasi is not only a solid support for the tenor but a Mozart stylist in his own style. Instead of simply playing the accompaniment to Flórez, he too is an active participant playing up the symphonic nature of Mozart’s writing. From the opening notes of the album, with its emphatic chords, where every single texture of the orchestra is felt and heard to the final ones, which echo the opening, the conductor takes no single orchestral color for granted. The orchestral playing is so nuanced and balanced that you can listen to the entire album just to hear the maestro weave his magic.
And magic is undeniably the best word to use for this album as a whole. To this listener, there is no single misstep in Flórez, Minasi, and Sony’s “Mozart” and it will certainly be exciting to hear the tenor take on more Mozart roles in the very near future.