It was a first for me. I have never before been to the opera when a singer gave an encore of an aria in the middle of the performance. I guess it depends on the opera, and an opera buffa certainly lends itself to it more than, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle! Well, it happened at The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon, after the famous Act II tenor aria, “A furtive tear” from Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”. The playbill describes the aria this way, “…in Act II’s showstopping aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” it is much more than an excuse for a gorgeous melody: the aria’s variations between major and minor keys in the climaxes are one of the opera’s savviest depictions of dawning consciousness, as the hero simultaneously accepts the possibility of love and his own power of self-assertion.”
The first time I truly became aware of the Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, was during a Great Performances broadcast on PBS with Gustavo Dudamel. The wide ranging repertoire that Flórez sang in the concert included “Ah! Mes Amis!” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment”, complete with its nine high C’s, which he knocked off with great aplomb, as if it were no great achievement at all. I determined then and there to hear him live, and when I saw that he was singing Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore”, that was my chance.
It turns out he’s not only a fabulous bel canto tenor, with an exquisite, shimmering, quick vibrato, he’s also a lovely actor (he can even dance), and he captured all the disarming vulnerability of unrequited love with great charm and hilarity. Then there was the Act II aria; just him alone on the stage with his suitcase, about to go off to enlist in the army. It was utterly spell-binding, and you could have heard a pin drop in 4,000 capacity opera house. Afterwards, the applause stopped the show, and he stepped out of character to take a bow. Then there were cries on “Encore!” from the left side of the auditorium. Flórez stepped forward, gestured to the conductor, and obliged—and the aria was even better than the perfect time before.
There was a funny moment then because the stage action had him picking up his suitcase, preparing to walk off towards stage left, stopping in his tracks, and back-tracking a few steps. The audience took it as an indication that he would reprise the aria again! After a couple of these false starts, he stepped out of character again and explained that Miss Damrau was waiting to come on, as indeed she did (also giving a superb performance), and the show could go on. It was all so engaging and in keeping with the character of the whole production, somehow.
I think I am easily star struck. I am always completely awed by excellence, and the sense of being in the same room as someone of the calibre of Juan Diego Flórez, breathing the same air, sharing the unfolding of events as they occur, is something I will never get used to or take for granted. It is one of the great privileges of living in a country like this, where we have access to such excellence.