How many opera-lovers have already heard the nine high Cs Juan Diego Flórez sang recently in “Ah, mes amis (Pour mon âme)” from La Fille Du Régiment at the Metropolitan Opera? Impossible to say, other than: a lot (most of them via YouTube). And as you’ve likely also heard by now, a week ago on Monday the Met lifted the traditional house ban on encores, Flórez actually sang eighteen high Cs after the second go-round. (At La Scala, they broke the ban for Flórez in the same opera, too.)
Obviously, there’s more to singing opera than high notes. But there’s no denying the thrill of hearing them done so well: the gladiator aspect of opera. After all, here’s a guy singing with complete abandon, seemingly popping out high notes like they’re nothing. Anyone who’s been at the opera at a night with a tenor having a hideously bad night knows those high notes are not easy.
Flórez’s particular brand of tenor is breathtaking because it’s so precise, so agile, so trumpet-like—and yes, so high. Many tenors appearing to be fighting the basic laws of nature when they sing, but not Flórez; his high C has the feeling of being mid-range, not high. I’ve also been listening to his new Rossini/Bellini/Donizetti solo CD, “Voce D’Italia: Arias for Rubini,” and he’s easily hitting E-flats, such as in “All’ udir del padre afflitto…” from Bellini’s Bianca e Fernando. What gets less notice than the high notes, however, is something I find equally remarkable about this singer: it is difficult to detect any break as he transitions between the different registers of his voice. The timbre of the whole voice is the same, top to bottom. In fact, because his sound is so brassy, I like the bottom of the voice almost better than the admittedly thrilling top. This is how I remember his voice from the first time I heard him, as Almaviva in Barbiere di Siviglia (also broadcast by Great Performances @ The Met)—this is a voice that cuts, even in the huge Met auditorium. Hearing him hit those electric high notes can feel like getting impaled, and astonishingly this can happen even relatively low in his range, such as a G above middle C. Thrilling, but getting nailed to the wall with sound is not pleasant 100 percent of the time. This prompts me to ask: why on earth did Decca’s engineers record him so closely in the “Voce D’Italia” CD? Do they think listeners nowadays need to be jolted to appreciate this music? What’s wrong with pianissimo, anyway? I know I’ve heard him sing softly in live performance.
If you missed the radio broadcast last Saturday and you can’t wait until June for the Great Performances telecast on PBS, you can at least catch “Ah, mes amis” through the wonders of the internet. There are several versions (just google “Juan Diego Florez Ah mes amis”). You can find one recording via All Things Considered on NPR and another below, embedded from YouTube.