There are tenors and then there are tenors, and Peruvian crooner Juan Diego Flórez certainly embodies the latter category of performers. Half of the Royal Albert Hall was made up of a clearly ardent fan club; this is a man whose huge voice and infectious charisma has won over a generation of music lovers both in South America and amongst Western audiences. It was a testament to his universal appeal that millennials swayed alongside seasoned opera lovers; with a programme covering Mozart, Rossini Puccini, Verdi and even a few Peruvian folk songs thrown in as one of (many) encores, it’s not hard to understand his appeal.

Juan Diego Flórez © Simon Fowler | Decca
Juan Diego Flórez
© Simon Fowler | Decca

But it was an appeal that was questionable for much of the first half of the programme. An eclectic mix of music was the order of the day, Flórez admitting that he selected the pieces by “thinking about what I am singing nowadays what I would like to sing, what I haven’t sung in London before”. Hardly the most coherent of programmes. Vaguely ordered in date from Mozart up to Verdi, many of his choices were big-hitting party pieces that needed no introduction – which was just as well, as none was given. Sparse programme notes did little to give any senses of setting within the operas for each aria, and a lack of subtitles or printed text meant that Florez had a doubly hard job trying to convey the meaning of some of the more complex ideas; Otello’s “Che ascolto? ahimè…” was one notable example. The hall is famously cavernous and Flórez seemed to feel increasingly awkward and ill at ease. Neither he nor the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, ably conducted by Swiss rising light Lorenzo Viotti, could agree on tempo: Cimarosa’s beautiful “Pria che spunti in ciel l’aurora’ from Il matrimonio segreto lurched uncomfortably, and Florez oversang much of the quieter section: his impressive virtuosity lacked contrast in an overly forceful “care sposa”, and both his Mozart arias felt slightly out of kilter (though not so much as during “O mio rimorso” (Verdi’s La traviata), where he had to stop and restart to get back in time with the orchestra). 

This excess force was unfortunately evident in much of the music pre-interval: Count Almaviva’s opening aria “Ecco, ridente in cielo” (Il barbiere di Siviglia) was an ideal opportunity to showcase Flórez’s sonorous sustained notes, but lacked tenderness. He certainly has the high notes, but felt edgy and uncertain. Had he given himself more time between aria to change mood – perhaps even by introducing each piece by setting the scene, which would have been hugely beneficial to many of the audience – he would perhaps have settled in far earlier.

As it was, it was after the interval that Flórez began to shine. This was less a concert of two halves than one of two tenors: able to dramatise the music of Puccini, Verdi and Leoncavallo far more effectively, Flórez came alive. Finally matching the orchestra’s incredible sensitivity, his opening three songs by Leoncavallo, all wonderfully sumptuous, were engaging and evocative. And he only grew in strength: returning after a sublime performance of Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, in which a sonorous bassoon added a depth not often explored in such intensity, both Puccini arias – "Avete torto… Firenze è come un’albero fiorito" (Gianni Schicchi) and "Che gelida manina", from La bohème – were a perfect blend of fiery passion and sensitivity.

But it was in his encores, of which there were three sets, in which Flórez really shone. Released from the rigidness that had pervaded his ensemble during the programme, he returned to the stage with his guitar and a far more relaxed demeanour. His choice of music was three folk songs; “they’re in the same key,” he remarked, “which is why I’m playing these.” Far easier to warm to now that some connection with the audience was finally made, his two further returns – including most memorably for “Ah! mes amis” from Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment, for which he is now famous for his absolute precision in those nine devilish top Cs.

Allowed to relax and really show off, Flórez can be sensational. Given just a bit of repartee with the audience (and much with the conductor, which was delightfully refreshing), he had the audience eating out of his hand. If only this could have been established from the start.