Spectacular accolades for the rising star of a young songbird

The audience at The Royal Opera House Muscat was blessed with two unique and remarkable voices on Thursday evening. World-famous tenor of choice, Juan Diego Flórez bewitched and transported listeners with his charisma and supreme command of the bel canto repertoire. Egyptian-born Fatma Said surprised everyone with the power and beauty of her sound, emanating from someone so physically slight. It was a coup for the House and a privilege to be present for this amazing performance. They brought with them the oldest theatre orchestra in Hungary which dates back to 1838 and the 40-year-old Spanish maestro, experienced opera-conductor, Guillermo García Calvo.
The programme was neatly divided into four composers from the 19th century. It opened with the short, lively Overture to Charles Gounod’s ‘Roméo et Juliette’ with some spirited Brass moments, and sonorous solos full of pathos from Principal cellist of the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra, Chung Hosung. The beautiful aria which brought Juan Diego Flórez to the stage —and everyone’s attention — was, ‘Ah! Lêve-Toi, Soleil’ (Wake-up, Sun!). It was a stunning opening, letting Flórez’ voice captivate with its passionate roundness so perfectly placed in every register. He literally inhabits the song and comes from within, helped here by some effective harp interjections from Emese Bajtala. It was Fatma Said’s turn to perform and impress on her third visit to ROHM, and she did not disappoint! Choosing the well-known beloved, ‘Je Veux Vivre’, Juliette’s zest for life was amply conveyed in Fatma’s superb coloratura control. There was instant silence. The familiar duet, ‘Nuit d’Hyménée’ was an extended dramatic piece which allowed both voices to blend and complement, from sotto voce to strong, impassioned conviction.
Unfortunately, subtitles were not provided for this concert production, but the next set focused on Gaetano Donizetti’s belcanto operas, requiring incredible flexibility and agility from the singers. It began with a substantial Overture to his ‘Anna Bolena’ with light-hearted woodwind runs and fine melodic playing from the fiddles. The highly dramatic duet from ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ provided some beautiful singing from both artists. Fatma Said interpreted Lucia, reducing her line to almost nothing, and commanding great control of the audience as well as her vocal tone and range. The ensemble singing was superb, and yet the twenty-seven-year-old soprano is not regularly paired with 45-five-year-old Flórez. She had a chance to show her endearing, coy nature in the jocular, ‘O Luce di Quest’anima’ from ‘Linda di Chamounix’ with a cadenza so fast and virtuosic that the orchestra was almost left behind at one point! Juan Diego’s pièce de résistance came as the finale of Part 1. After an orchestral introduction with some fine brass and horn playing, he entered with quietly intense melos in, ‘Fra Poco a me Ricovero’ from Lammermoor, sometimes unaccompanied, secco, with powerful silences between phrases, sometimes rising to the heights of strength, demonstrating his superb breathing support in often long, controlled passages.
Part 2 opened with Flórez, like a young José Carreras, in Jules Massenet’s ‘Ah! Fuyez, Douces Images’ from his Romantic opera, ‘Manon’. It was accompanied on organ by Klára Jean, in a Prayer which was projected naturally, without being overpowering or forced. ‘Obéissons Quand Leur Voix Appelle’ gave Fatma Said the chance to be flirtatious and coquettish with convincing facial expressions, reflecting her excellent acting abilities. They could both coo and coax each other to ‘go to Paris’ together in, ‘Combien ces Femmes Sont Jolies!’ (How delightful are these ladies!) with big vocal phrases and emotional melodies. There was some beautiful solo playing from Leader, Galina Danilova.
The final Puccini section started with the lush, romantic strings and harp of the well-known theme in ‘Intermezzo’ from ‘Manon Lescaut’, including lovely solos from the Principals. A big orchestral climax faded into a tender ending, and that mood brought Fatma as Mimi from ‘La Boheme’, dying of consumption, with the familiar, ‘Quando M’en Vo’. More famous still, the tenor aria, ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’ was executed with the same conviction which allows Flórez to inhabit each song he is performing. Mimi is a role made for Fatma Said, with her doll-like appearance and diminutive stature, she was utterly credible in the flawless Finale, ‘O Soave Fanciulla’, as they both sang lovingly together and exeunt arm in arm, to the street-cafe below.
After that stellar performance, was there an encore? No; there were six! Planned and rehearsed, Fatma Said returned to the stage alone, resplendent in her red robe, and sang Puccini’s, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ to remind fans once again just how much stamina and expressivity she possesses, from pianissimo to the heights of her range. A stage-hand brought out a chair followed by Flórez, guitar in hand, to give a taste of his Latin American roots in Peru. “Besame Mucho” drew a thunderous applause from the audience, and was quickly followed by the lullaby, ‘Cucurucu Paloma’ which delighted everyone with its exquisite lightness. A short, popular folk tribute to Lima was entrée to a full-voiced, standing rendition of Agustin Lara’s beloved, “Granada”, like a young Domingo steeped in zarzuelas. They had to end with a duet and bring Fatma back on stage. It was a stirring romantic Paso Doble, “Torero Quiero Ser” from the 1913, ‘El Gato Montes’ (The Wild Cat) by Spanish composer, Manuel Penella Moreno, and the perfect end to a wonderful evening.

Georgina Benison
Photos: Khalid al Busaidi