Javier Camarena is undoubtedly one of the greatest superstars of the bel canto repertoire on the opera scene today, and the Zurich audience had a taste of his artistry during an exciting concert offered by the Opernhaus within the mini-festival “Finale”.

Javier Camarena
© Spinto-Mar Alvarez

Camarena chose a full bel canto repertoire, focused mainly on Donizetti. The evening started with “Je suis joyeux” from Rita ou Le Mari battu, a happy-go-lucky aria sung by a young boy. It was Camarena’s first concert after the forced pause due to the pandemic, and his joie de vivre, his sheer happiness of being there, singing again, was exploding in every spectacular high note, in every bubbly staccato passage, in every joyful “trallalallalà”. It was an outburst of life and excitement.

Camarena has a very unusual voice, where the incredibly easy high notes are strong and secure, but the centre of the voice is more in the middle, which results in extreme uniformity on the whole range, and great power also in the central register. He proved his musicality and great technique, with thoughtful smorzando, and a good usage of pianissimo, but his best results are in communicating excitement and passion, with the power of his enthralling instrument.

The following aria, “Un ange” from La Favorite, gave Camarena a chance to show his phrasing; his interpretation was more intense than melancholy, giving life to a tormented Fernand.

After an aria from Édouard Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys, with a beautiful smorzando on a high A, two other arias from Donizetti followed: “Seul sur la terre” from Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal (where he graced us with some pianissimo super high notes) and the flagship “Ah! mes amis” from La Fille du régiment, which concluded the first part of the concert. During the endless ovation that followed, somebody cried “encore!” and Camarena laughingly declined saying: “Have you seen the rest of the programme?”

In the second part the French language was abandoned in favour of Italian: the first aria “Nel furor delle tempeste” from Vincenzo Bellini’s Il pirata,  was the highlight of the evening. Bellini, in my opinion, needs a higher level of musicality and phrasing (generally speaking), and Camarena delivered with mastery and elegance. The cabaletta was irresistible, fast, with a wonderful legato and a super-high D that shattered the theatre.

An alternative aria for Gennaro in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, written for the tenor Mario in the Paris version of 1840 followed – “Com’è soave quest’ora di silenzio” – and then “E fia ver” from Betly, from the same composer.

The set was concluded by Alfredo’s second act aria in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata: “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”. Camarena seemed an ideal Alfredo: his powerful voice communicated all the excitement of the young Alfredo, and even the cabaletta “O mio rimorso”, not the best page of the master, for once sounded convincing.

Una furtiva lagrima, with a spectacular soft, precise attack, was the first, beautiful, encore. Then Camarena gave a short, emotional speech, where he communicated in words his happiness at performing again, so obvious in his singing, but also his deep sadness at the tragedy that hit the world, and forced live music to stop. He then sang Schubert's Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen, a sort of requiem for all the people who died of COVID-19. From a strictly musical point of view, the score sits a bit too low for Camarena’s voice, and perhaps he didn’t master the style perfectly. But it was a very moving moment, much appreciated by the audience, and many eyes were tearful. The pianist Enrico Maria Cacciari, a rock-solid presence throughout the concert, contributed with a perfectly stylish and emotional rendering of Schubert’s score.

And then, Camarena did replicate “Ah! mes amis”! It was a bit disconcerting to jump from Schubert’s mourning to Donizetti’s fireworks, but the public was grateful, and the concert ended with a standing ovation.