Monday, July 14, 2008

The frog prince, aka JDF

Midway through the second half of his sell-out 'recital' at the Barbican on Saturday night, Juan Diego Florez vanished. A chap in a suit appeared and had a quiet word with maestro Carlo Rizzi, who trotted after him off the podium, then vanished too. Minutes ticked by (and the orchestra, bussed in from Welsh National Opera, was probably trying to calculate what time they'd get home to Cardiff if he left it any longer). Eventually they came back and Florez made a little speech.

"Global warming," he said, "seems to be affecting tenors too these days." He had a 'frog' in his throat. A little problem of phlegm, which he was sure would be better the minute he got under a hot shower, but meanwhile there were all kinds of fluids around and the audience members in the front row opposite him should beware! Before 'Amici miei' (Italian version of 'Ah, mes amis' - and it sounds better in French), he disappeared again. Long pause. Carlo Rizzi turned to the audience and raised one immensely expressive eyebrow...

Florez sang beautifully anyway, most of the time. When he was singing at all, that is (the programme, entirely bel canto to help launch JDF's new album, consisted of six short arias and five long overtures). That voice was still that voice; but what was missing was the sense of effortlessness, the flying honeypots of exquisite legato that we remember from La fille du regiment, the total technical security which makes his singing such a joy. When he wasn't turning on the charm and making the audience laugh, he looked uncomfortable, holding on to the chrome rail around Rizzi, his expression visibly anxious.

What happened? I have a little theory.

Saturday night wasn't especially warm - this summer has been c*)p, wet, miserable and chilly, and that evening was no exception. But the Barbican was heaving. The concert hall was sold out, with a queue for returns. So, too, was the theatre, which is staging the massive hit Black Watch, also with a queue for returns. The restaurants were busy, and the foyers and bars teeming. And, in the concrete bunker of the Barbican, there was no air.

I felt it pretty badly in the audience - rarely have I been so relieved to get out into the rain - and I can't imagine how the performers must have felt. Well, I can, as my companion for the evening had friends in the orchestra and we went backstage to say hi. "It's really hot out there..." they said, clustering around the water bottles.

The Barbican's artistic programme is one of the best in the entire world. But it's not my first choice of venue for a fun night out. Twenty-one years ago, I bottled out of the Barbican-based Guildhall School of Music and Drama after only three weeks - long enough to start thinking that the place might have a bad case of 'sick building syndrome'. The Guildhall - which I'm glad to say is now constructing a state-of-the-art new block over the road, due to open in 2011 - is directly above the Barbican's car park and we all suspected that the CO2 was wending its happy way up into the school and our lungs. What's certain is that there wasn't one day during those three weeks in which I didn't go home with a headache and nausea. The Barbican itself, meanwhile, seems to have a ventilation problem, not to mention a serious lack of natural light. There was no air in that hall on Saturday night. No wonder Florez was feeling froggy.

As a cheerful footnote, my companion assessed the frog prince and his gleaming smile, then remarked that he looked like one of those footballers who are brought on at the end of the match to do the penalty shoot-outs and win the game without having played it.

Here's JDF himself singing 'Ah, mes amis' in the Laurent Pelly production of La fille du regiment last year in Vienna.