Juan Diego Florez, opera's greatest vocal star, returns to Covent Garden tonight. He talks to Rupert Christiansen about the risks of fame - and what he thinks of Alagna
Inevitably, the first thing to be discussed with Juan Diego Florez is the much-publicised scandal surrounding his fellow tenor Roberto Alagna, who recently stormed off the sacred stage of La Scala, Milan, after being booed during a performance of Verdi's Aida, and never returned.
Florez expresses polite admiration for Alagna the artist, but it is clear that the 33-year-old Peruvian is a much cooler customer who would not have reacted in the same way. "I've never been booed, though I've been in productions where everyone else was, so I can imagine the pain. Perhaps one day it will happen to me, but so far I've had luck. I think it is something I could handle OK."
He certainly seems to handle everything else OK. Since the summer of 1996, when he made a sensational debut in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran at the Pesaro Festival, he has enjoyed the virtually unanimous and often hysterical acclaim of audiences in all the major opera houses of the world (not least the supremely exigent La Scala).
The bravos will doubtless ring out again when he returns to Covent Garden tonight to sing the show-stopping role of the naive recruit Tonio – last sung here by Pavarotti more than 40 years ago – in Donizetti's deliciously silly comedy La Fille du regiment, with Natalie Dessay as his beloved Marie.
Florez currently ranks as opera's greatest vocal phenomenon. For sheer technical virtuosity – acrobatic flexibility, speed and clarity, stunning top Cs, security of pitch and breath control, there isn't a tenor like him on record, and the history books will surely rank him alongside Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne and Cecilia Bartoli as one of the legendary exponents of the Italian bel canto style. For an industry hungry for more vulgar levels of publicity, he presents other significant qualities, too, his slim and handsome appearance providing the heart-throb factor that can fill big concert halls and send CD sales rocketing.
His fame – which in some European countries reaches rock-star proportions – has not yet floored him: Florez seems very self-aware, self-contained and emotionally balanced. At home in Pesaro, close to Rossini's birthplace and the mansion of his friend and admirer Pavarotti, he chills out, listening to Latin American music, playing a bit of football, catching up with email and spending time with his girlfriend, a German-Australian who has given up her own operatic career to travel with him.
He has little time for anything else, he says, though he does enjoy composition – he writes all his own ornaments for florid arias, and this Christmas, his first choral and orchestral composition was given its première in Vienna.
He doesn't have the easy warmth or charm of the other new tenor marvel Rolando Villazon, but he gives a pleasant, polished interview, leaving one feeling that he is someone determined to make a success of his big chance, bolstered by the good sense not to turn himself into a monster of ego.
"Red lights flash sometimes," he admits, when asked how success has changed him. "There are moments of stress when you think, 'Oh my God, I could become this horrible person.' I am lucky to have people around me whom I trust, people who keep my feet on the ground." Foremost among his court is Ernesto Palacio, his guide and mentor as well as his agent, with whom he has an unusually close professional relationship.
What makes Palacio so valuable to Florez is that he too was a bel canto tenor – one with a considerable reputation in the '70s and '80s. He can therefore not only make bookings and negotiate fees, but also advise sensitively on vocal and artistic matters.
Palacio's counsel seems very wise. One common tenor disease is the vain longing to push the voice beyond its natural capacity in order to sing more dramatic and romantic roles. This is at the heart of Alagna's problems with Aida. But Florez seems very content to continue singing what he is naturally good at – Donizetti, Bellini and, in particular, Rossini.
Others might get bored with their rather two-dimensional characterisations, frequent resort to cliché and tendency to give the prima donna the best tunes, but Florez knows that their music shows his vocal endowment to its best advantage, and he's in no hurry to move on to the richer musical pastures of Verdi and Puccini, Gounod and Massenet.
The irony is that for someone whose singing seems so fabulously daring, Florez is actually very cautious and calculating about displaying it.
"It's not as though I am singing these operas the whole time," he explains. "I space them out with concerts and recitals, and I take on one new role each year: next come Les Pecheurs de Perles, Così fan tutte and Orfeo e Euridice. But my voice is not changing yet, it is not getting darker or heavier. So, while I have the high notes and flexibility, I want to use them, and operas like Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Sonnambula and La Fille du regiment are the best way to do that.
"Bellini's melodies give me spiritual pleasure, they're so beautiful that they make the hairs on my arm stand up; Rossini is more physical – singing his music makes me feel like a sports guy going for the gold medal.
"So why should I worry? I am still at the beginning of my career, and I am booked up until 2012. I am lucky, I am not forced to do things just to make money.
"My big ambition is to sing as well as I do in my ideal. I come off stage every night, and compared with the way I sang the aria inside my head, I give myself low marks. People say I am too hard, but I know it could always have been better."