For some time, the most elusive and prized species of opera singer has been Pavarotti redux. Plácido Domingo remains the dramatic tenor par excellence. But for all the ballyhoo that has attended the careers of such rising young tenors as Roberto Alagna and José Cura, nobody has yet come along with the combination of qualities that made the bear of a baker’s son from Modena the most beloved opera star of our time. What Mr. Pavarotti had–and still occasionally has, despite failing knees and no-longer-seamless vocal powers–was not only a voice of pure honey, but a palpable delight in reaching the audience. Mr. Domingo, a greater all-round artist, sings with the character uppermost in mind; Mr. Pavarotti sings with nobody in mind but his ravished listeners.
Barbetta’s restaurant on West 46th Street at 6:30 in the evening isn’t the ideal venue for a tenor to demonstrate his skills, especially when the dining room is empty except for a handful of freeloading music critics, pulled in by a record label to promote a new release. But it was there, the other night, that I first heard Juan Diego Flórez, a young tenor from Peru who looks and sounds more like the heir apparent to the throne of Luciano than anyone I have yet heard.
Mr. Flórez, a fellow of modest height with a trim, un-Pavarotti-like figure, was standing quietly with a woman accompanist next to an upright piano. Dressed in a sport jacket and an open shirt, he has the dark, curly-haired handsomeness of an old-fashioned matinee idol (he would look good in a remake of Tyrone Power’s Blood and Sand ). When I asked him to characterize his repertoire, he said with a hint of mischief in his smile, “Bellini and Rossini, Rossini and Bellini.” A few days earlier, he had made a wildly applauded Met debut as Count Almaviva in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville , and Decca, Mr. Pavarotti’s label, had just released Mr. Flórez’s first solo album, a collection of arias all written by Rossini, the 19th-century master of the vocally unbridled style known as bel canto. Already, I was told, the recording had become one of the best-selling CD’s at the Tower Records near Lincoln Center–not just in the classical department but storewide. After the young man was introduced to the gathering by a Decca executive, Mr. Flórez–with the air of someone doing nothing more remarkable than commenting on the weather–sailed into the Count’s Act II aria “Cessa di più resistere,” a virtuoso set piece which requires so much agility, stamina and breath control that it is dropped from most productions.
The most celebrated of Mr. Flórez’s predecessors in the underpopulated aviary of male bel canto singers was Tito Schipa, who flourished between the two world wars, and who remains one of the three or four most purely pleasurable tenors on disk. The size of Mr. Flórez’s voice is similarly light (he will never, as Mr. Pavarotti did, fill football stadiums with “Nessun Dorma”); it has the same uncanny evenness from top to bottom that Schipa’s had; and it handles the most formidable hurdles–the sudden leaps, roller-coaster runs and long-held high notes that Rossini delights in inflicting on tenors–as though it’s all in a day’s gargle. Mr. Flórez is the sort of tenor whose neck veins never bulge. But whereas the great Schipa’s charm was intimate and conversational, the appeal of Mr. Flórez is athletic and dazzling. The bright ring of his voice, with an attractive hint of a burr in it, contains an innate fearlessness that I hadn’t heard since Mr. Pavarotti began selling out the Met with his marathon high C’s in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment . It is also apparent that, at the age of 29, the young man has something that distinguishes the greatest singers–a voice immediately recognizable as belonging to nobody else.
A few nights later, at The Barber of Seville , I discovered that Mr. Flórez’s fearlessness extends to his acting. Rossini’s perennial crowd-pleaser, with its clockwork procession of familiar tunes and its relentless tomfoolery about the Count’s efforts to elope with the terminally winsome Rosina, is near the top of my list of operas I hope never to have to see again. The Met’s staging, a reasonably untattered John Cox production from the 1980′s, is postcard-attractive; the cast was made up of such dependable veterans as Dwayne Croft (Figaro), Ruth Ann Swenson (Rosina), Paul Plishka (Dr. Bartolo) and Simone Alaimo (Don Basilio); and the conductor was the excellent young Canadian Yves Abel, who supplied a buoyantly suave touch in the pit.
But as long as Mr. Flórez is onstage, the opera should be renamed Almaviva: The Suitor You Can’t Take Your Eyes Off . A veteran of the painstaking Rossini productions that are presented annually in the composer’s hometown of Pesaro, Italy, Mr. Flórez brought a panache to the slapstick that made the others–in particular, Mr. Croft’s blustery, posturing Figaro–seem like crude cartoons. Whether got up as an officer with an embarrassment of gold on his chest or disguised as a mad music teacher out of Young Frankenstein , he was a whirlwind of comic timing and gesture that matched, at every turn, the astonishing feats of his voice. When, at one point, he jumped into the air and landed on a high table perfectly seated, I was reminded of something else that he shares with Mr. Pavarotti: the sense that there’s nothing he’d rather be doing than giving everything he’s got to this most challenging and silliest of entertainments. The audience cheered as if he were the second coming.