It is often remarked that Juan Diego Flórez has that rare and much-prized quality of loyalty. Season after season he returns to Pesaro for the Rossini Opera Festival, a place where he had some of his earliest successes prior to ‘superstardom’. He has never forgotten the poverty of his native Peru, in which he has founded the Sinfonía por el Perú on the El Sistema model. Flórez first sang at a Rosenblatt Recital in 2001 when his career was still on the rise, and has returned several times; in this respect, he is much to be commended for continuing to support those stages that helped to elevate him. This year’s recital at the Royal Albert Hall saw him paired with fairly young Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini Orchestra in a programme of arias in the first half, and turn of the century Italian songs in the second.

Sadly, the performance from one of the finest tenors of bel canto singing today was artistically disappointing. This must largely, though not wholly, be attributed to that most harmful of musical accoutrements: amplification. The orchestra opened with the overture to The Magic Flute and conductor Christopher Franklin (or the microphone) brought an unwelcome heaviness that dulled the piece. Flórez subsequently emerged and spent his time steadfastly behind a microphone. In two Mozart arias his tone was grainy, jagged at the higher register and he seemed to struggle to hold top notes. The amplification made heavy what is, or used to be, a pellucid light instrument and dulled any real nuance from the voice. I am not convinced on the basis of those extracts that Flórez is a natural Mozartian, though his pronunciation was more than acceptable.

After a “Cessa di più resistere” from The Barber of Seville, that should have been safe territory for Flórez but which was ponderous and actually interrupted by a moment of feedback, Flórez asked the engineers to turn the sound down, but made a justification for having some form of amplification. This was disappointing to hear from a tenor who has sung in the great opera houses of the world and should know about projection. Amplification perverts and distorts the voice – with great volume does not necessarily come great beauty. The performance started to improve on “Mercè, diletti amici” from Ernani, where Flórez showed a lighter tone – more of an impression was made by the care of his phrasing, and the meaning he gave to the text, though it was not sung entirely without superficiality. 

Flórez seemed more comfortable with his Italian songs in the second half, joined on stage by such instruments as a mandolin and accordion. His voice was much less fogged and he showed greater ease at reaching and sustaining high notes, particularly noticeable in Donizetti’s Me voglio fa ‘na casa where he displayed a smooth legato. One fears, though, that Flórez may be in danger of establishing himself as the opera world's ultimate crooner, interspersing these 'cool' songs with chummy, inane comments that nonetheless drew plenty of laughter. Flórez showed fine breath control, and he brought some palpable dramatic inspiration to De Curtis' Torna a Surriento. Occasionally jumping in with Italian overtures, the orchestra was not on top form, sounding overly heavy in Barber and occasionally somewhat mannered. The odd fluff was noticeable in the brass section, but as with their tenor, the orchestra seemed more at ease in the second half. Providing mandolin and accordion duets in the second half, Avi Avital and Ksenija Sidorova were an inspiring couple, offering zesty, engaging playing that highlighted their instruments' virtues and made one wish more could be heard in that repertoire. 

One of the great delights of the Rosenblatt Recitals has been the almost consistent displays of artistry; alas, the latest did not live up to this. Though the programme was easy on the ear, there was little there that genuinely inspired, and musical intelligence was often sorely lacking. A rare disappointment in the series.