Hear the name Javier Camarena, and Juan Diego Flórez and Luciano Pavarotti will almost certainly be mentioned in the same sentence. All three have the distinct honour of being granted an encore at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and each have a very distinct relationship with those jewels of bel canto, the high Cs. Camarena has achieved huge popularity in New York and across Europe in works such as Don Pasquale and La Cenerentola (both of which featured his aforementioned encores), but is sadly not so well-known in this country, though that should change with his forthcoming debut at the Royal Opera House as Count Almaviva later this year. His Rosenblatt Recital showed exactly why he has gained such devotion from the Met's audience, and why comparisons with Pavarotti are so apt.

Javier Camarena
Javier Camarena

 This was not a programme that did anything other than showcase Camarena’s voice, and in this it succeeded admirably, offering not merely an indulgent selection, but a double-cream, head right in the bowl range of audience favourites without ever being dull. The first half was straight from the stage; Camarena’s opening salvo was “Que les destins prospères” from Le comte Ory, which is a ridiculously difficult piece to open with and yet was sung with total ease. Camarena’s tenor is undoubtedly huge – like several other singers in the Rosenblatt series, too big for the venue – and has an unusual combination of light creaminess and sheer brawn, particularly at the top. He showed a very easy and flexible range, navigating the tessitura of the aria thrillingly. Technically, Camarena is nearly perfect, but his emotional and musical intelligence is equally noticeable. He brought a plangent melancholy to “Je crois entendre encore” from Pearl Fishers which balanced the warmth of his tone and indeed moved several members of the audience in my vicinity to tears. The ease with which Camarena moved from role to role so completely was striking and one of the components of this aria-by-aria change was the extended introduction to each played by the pianist, Ángel Rodríguez. Moving from the humour of the Count Ory to the pathos of Nadir, through Edgardo and then back to the more uplifting Tonio of La fille du regiment, Camarena’s assumption of each role was totally convincing.

 He crowned the first half with “Bagnato il sen di lagrime” from Roberto Devereux and “Ah! mes amis…” from La fille’. Here, words fail me. There are very few tenors I have heard who have managed to sing either of the two with such power and force at the top. “Ah! mes amis” was a signature piece for Pavarotti – Camarena came millimetres away from equalling him, with a laser-sharp Cs, reached and held with an unwavering intensity. I noted too Camarena’s fine facility with both French and Italian – and Spanish in the second half – where excellent diction and an innate understanding of the patterns of the languages was shown. Careful phrasing is just as much a hallmark as his ringing top notes.

 The second half was slightly more eclectic in taste, ranging from Tosti (a real favourite in the Rosenblatt series this year) and zarzuela to Latin American songs. For the Tosti song cycle Quattro canzoni d’Amaranta, Camarena had a music stand brought on stage, but was not heavily reliant on it and gave a balanced, intelligent performance that showed clear inspiration from the text, and displayed an appealing gravel at the lower reaches of his voice. I am particularly grateful to him for singing Oración Caribe by Agustín Lara, which I had not heard before and is a delightfully evocative little piece.  Angel Rodríguez’s playing throughout was a superbly measured – the introductions to each piece in the first half gave plenty of opportunities to hear some splendid playing, particularly the melancholy of Donizetti’s music.

The recital convinced me that Camarena is now at the very top of bel canto tenors singing today. Any performance of his will be a must-see and I warmly await his Covent Garden debut.

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