“He’s got everything I encourage my students to aspire to,” Marilyn Horne said to me a few weeks ago during the intermission of a recital by the young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez in Oberlin College’s acoustically wonderful Finney Chapel. “His understanding of musical style is impeccable. His sound is glorious. And he really connects. I’m blown away.”
Mr. Flórez had begun rather coolly with Tamino’s aria “Dies bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” from Die Zauberflöte; he’d grown in intensity with two more Mozart arias (including a finely spun “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni), and finally burst into flame in three arias by Rossini, in whose razzle-dazzle he reigns supreme among today’s tenors. Ahead were songs by the Peruvian composer Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales, French melodies by Fauré, Massenet and Bizet, and a grandly expressive aria by Donizetti, “Linda! Si ritirò” from Linda di Chamounix, all of which Mr. Flórez dispatched with exceptional panache. The standout among a generous assortment of encores, which had the youthful, sold-out audience screaming like rock fans, was “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment. Mr. Flórez popped off its nine high C’s with an effortlessness that would have made Pavarotti gasp.
On Dec. 1, Mr. Flórez and his superb accompanist, Vincenzo Scalera, will be giving the same program in the tenor’s first recital at Carnegie Hall. Judging from what I heard at Oberlin, it will be an electrifying event. Mr. Flórez has been on the brink of superstardom since he made his debut a decade ago (at age 23) in Rossini’s birthplace, Pesaro, Italy. Over the last 10 years, he’s turned out a slew of best-selling albums on the Decca label, ranging from the florid bel canto repertoire to the soulful marineras, valse criollos, boleros and tangos he learned at the knee of his father, a highly regarded singer of popular Peruvian songs.
His 2002 debut at the Met as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville was a sensation, not only for his vocal athleticism, but also for the physical athleticism, abetted by dark movie-star looks, with which he commanded the stage. (If last season he seemed slightly piqued by the greater attention lavished on the Russian bombshell, Anna Netrebko, his co-star in Don Pasquale—at one performance he broke character by milking the audience for more applause—remember that there’s a grand tradition of tenors who can’t get enough approval.)
Mr. Flórez is now back at the Met as the Count in a production of The Barber of Seville that has the effect of subduing his pop-star charisma while bringing out a greater artistic maturity. Although the director, Bartlett Sher (best known for The Light in the Piazza at the Lincoln Center Theater), was signed to make his Met debut before the arrival of the company’s new general manager, Peter Gelb, the staging of this new Barber bears all the marks of Mr. Gelb’s avowed determination to bring opera to the great unwashed.
Rossini loved to wring laughs out of operatic shenanigans, and in this case he transformed low comedy into something sublime through the unflagging effervescence of his musical invention. Mr. Sher signaled that he would not be content to let Rossini’s delicious, self-mocking score speak for itself when he raised the curtain midway through the splendid overture to show us a sleepy manservant rousing the master of the house, Dr. Bartolo, from a drunken stupor—a scene nowhere to be found in the libretto. As if there weren’t enough rapid-fire “Figaro, Figaro, Figaros” to make the point, the title character sang his bravura aria of self-advertisement, “Largo al factotum,” surrounded by doting peasant girls and, mysteriously, a donkey.
Michael Yeargan’s uncommonly shallow set had enough doors for a dozen Feydeau farces. He employed female stagehands; their gender underscored the opera’s theme of a young woman trying to escape her male keeper. In the production’s sharpest break with Met tradition, the proscenium arch was obliterated by the installation of a Miss America–style runway over the orchestra pit; this allowed the principals to step out from behind the golden draperies and vent their frustrations directly to the audience. Mr. Sher (and Mr. Gelb) seemed to be addressing the post-9/11 decline in Met attendance by saying, “If you won’t come to the opera, then opera will come to you.”
As sheer showbiz, it worked. The production’s third performance, which I attended, was sold out, and the audience, looking distinctly younger than usual, was having a wonderful time. Egged on by their enthusiasm, most of the singers outdid themselves in showiness: Peter Mattei’s consistently engaging Figaro was so outsize in manner and voice that he might have been the mayor of Seville in disguise. John Del Carlo’s Dr. Bartolo and Samuel Ramey’s Don Basilio bellowed their brutishness with little regard for ensemble niceties. Diana Damrau’s Rosina embroidered her acrobatic arias with a manic perfection that did away with any sense of a wily damsel in distress. In the virtually silent role of the doctor’s somnolent manservant Ambrogio, the freelance dancer Rob Besserer found at least 273 different ways to get a laugh out of narcolepsy.
In the midst of it all was Mr. Flórez. With his boyish physique and penetrating but small-bore sound, he could have been swamped by all the bluster. But the evening belonged to him. Unfailingly elegant (even when he was impersonating the creepiest of music teachers), he captured the true magic that has made The Barber of Seville such a beloved hit since its premiere in Rome in 1816. (This was the Met’s 553rd performance of the work.) Chief among Rossini’s many second thoughts that shaped the opera’s success was his decision to transfer the tenor’s last, fiendishly difficult aria to the finale of La Cenerentola, where it has been a show-stopper for mezzo-sopranos ever since. For Mr. Flórez, the Met restored the aria to its original place just before the denouement. Seemingly led by the beauty of the aria, Mr. Flórez made his way out over the orchestra, sending his voice into impossible stratospheres, demonstrating the heroic, high-wire ardor that only opera at its best can provide.