In late October it takes something big to draw the attention of opera lovers away from the activities of the Wexford Festival. But it does happen. Last year it was the tour of the NI Opera/Wide Open Opera production of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which went on to win the director and designer Antony McDonald the prize for best costumes in The Irish Times Theatre Awards.
This year it was a star singer at the National Concert Hall, someone with a Wexford connection that goes back nearly 20 years. It was in 1996 that the then little-known Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez appeared in the role of George in Meyerbeer’s L’Étoile du Nord.
This was one of the Wexford productions that made it on to CD through the festival’s relationship with the Marco Polo label. So you can still check out his amusing alternation of repeated high notes with soprano Darina Takova’s Prascovia at the end of act one. It will probably bring a smile to your face, and maybe a hankering after the rather more famous and altogether more impressive string of high notes in the notoriously challenging aria Ah! Mes Amis – with its nine high Cs – from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.
I’m sure many of Flórez’s admirers at the NCH on Saturday were hoping for that aria to come their way as an encore. But, even though it would have fitted into the French theme of the evening (arias by Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, Donizetti, Berlioz, Gounod, Offenbach), it was not on offer.
However, no one can have gone away feeling short-changed. Flórez’s stage presence is modest rather than flamboyant. He is the antithesis of a showman. His voice has a pleasing immediacy. His tone is forward and highly focused, as responsive as a sports car. The delivery is stylish, dramatically apt and musically true.
The effect is not, as with many a singer, that Flórez seems to take control of and dominate the music. Instead, he – or, rather, his voice – fully becomes the music.
The RTÉ Concert Orchestra played like angels for conductor Sebastiano Rolli, not just in the shape-changing adaptability of their partnership with the singer, but also in the verve and colour they brought to the evening’s orchestral fillers. And if the audience didn’t get quite the dose of high Cs they might have been hoping for, they did get a perfectly timed and sculpted off-topic Italian classic, Verdi’s La Donna è Mobile.
On the subject of L’Étoile du Nord, I remember hearing around the time the CD came out that the compilation of the recording from the live performances in Wexford involved about 5,000 digital edits. And that brings to mind a statistic that has stuck in my head for years: that the editing of Georg Solti’s 1969 studio recording of Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier for Decca ran to 2,000 man hours.