Italian Opera on a rainy English day with Juan Diego Florez might be just what the doctor ordered

It is raining here in Sussex. That leaking gutter is making attractive patterns with the water which drips discretely outside my bedroom window and grey roof slates have come into their own, shining in the misty gloom. Over there beyond the rooftops is a ghostly apparition which is the South Downs, the countryside which today has decided to hide under its duvet advising me to do the same.

Yesterday was a different matter. The sun shone. September was up and running shouting mellow orders about getting on with work, organizing schedules, and snapping out of all that delightful summer laziness.

I went to the park with my kungfu instructor and got put through my paces in the first four of my training patterns and received a drubbing for my troubles. Those steps were clumsy, I was all over the place with my lower crane blocks and what, he asked, had happened to my stance.

It was good to be told off again. A year, nearly now since my brain haemorrhage, he has decided to wake my kungfu up with a few well-chosen and typically direct insults.

We went on to the sword pattern – Dragon Fly Dipping Sword – metal flashing in the sunshine, and I felt inspired when criticism rested, I learnt a new body challenging move in this the most elegant of kungfu patterns.

Not that I was elegant of course but, one day, I might just even master this and those other patterns if I can only work out a way of training which leaves my damaged brain enough space for its slow recovery.

Last night I went to my taichi class with that same eagle-eyed instructor and my euphoria at getting back to feeling almost normal in my training, gave the 66 move form a new relaxation as I performed it with, what the Chinese advise, an inner smile.

Neil, my kungfu instructor and I are learning Mandarin Chinese together and Monday mornings have become a challenging ritual of both martial arts and language learning. Yesterday there was also, in the spirit of the drubbing in the park, a lecture on how I am not allowing enough time in my day for rest.

My neurologist, who I saw last Friday, was encouraging about my long term recovery but she too was in nagging mood. Rest, she insists, is very important for my recuperation after a major brain injury. I have to await the results of next month’s MRI brain scan to see if I require surgery or not but the signs are good that I will actually, eventually, recovery fully from what has been a life-threatening condition.

OK then, I agree with both of you and the rest of my friends who are all saying the same thing. Take it easier, relax more. OK, I am saying, I hear you loud and clear.

Even September is telling me what to do now. Today’s rain has done it combined with that mood that always comes over me this month, that sense of back-to-school that never leaves us in adult life. September says:

“Clear that muddle on your desk, put those draft poems into files, establish closure on the ones you keep tinkering with and send them off to publishers, work out how much time you want to devote to poetry and how much to fiction, find space for regular Chinese practice and for music too and, obviously, my friend, you will need to rationalise your martial arts regime.”

“Thanks September,” I replied with all due humility.

I told my kungfu instructor about this and he forced me to write all my daily routines down on paper and to work out how to fit it all in with “recovery time” written at the top of the page. It was very helpful but he laughed at me when I told him about my problem with Gramophone Magazine.

There they lie on my study floor – twelve issues to be precise – unread since my brain haemorrhage stopped me in my tracks. I have read Gramophone Magazine from cover to cover every month since I was fourteen years old. The ritual ended last October and the magazines have dropped through my letterbox unloved and unopened ever since.

I have now decided that I want to catch up on what I have been missing musically in this year where I have found writing easier than reading and, if I am being honest, talking, new stammer apart, easier than listening.

This is great but when do I fit this in?

September has shown me how. You look at the rain outside, you lie back on the most comfortable of sofas and for a part of everyday, you read in the way that you have done since you first developed that obsessively nerdy interest in classical music.

It was spooky too of course because I have started where I left off. Last October’s issue came at me like a vision of the Marie Celeste with the page where I had left off. I remember it well but through a veil which often covers some of my memories of October 2008.

The last CD I bought on the back of a Gramophone review was there on a shelf in my study, unplayed of course, the brilliant young Peruvian tenor’s new recital disc “Bel Canto Spectacular.”
I remember now looking forward to hearing this with real excitement as I had grabbed all his previous recordings on the day of release so it was bizarre seeing it there unopened a year later.

I should Juan Diego Florez of course, he is a phenomenon in a style of technically demanding “coloratura” tenor singing which has not seen his like for over 100 years. The style that the young me in my music conservatoire days dared to dream of as my destiny. Well that, of course, didn’t happen for me or for anyone else until senor Florez stepped onto the international operatic stage only a few years ago.

I have swallowed any resentment, jealousy or spite that might have prevented my pleasure in hearing this fantastic voice in the music I so wanted to perform when I was an impressionable teenager: the operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti with their near-impossible demands on the human voice.

My hero when I was studying singing was the 19th. Century tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794-1854) who was THE tenor of his day and for whom those great Italian opera composers wrote music which was so high, so full of runs and trills and technical athleticism that has not been heard again correctly until now.

I have had a picture of Rubini on my wall ever since those heady days of my own personal vocal ambitions and I have always loved that music from the high days of Italian music when the human voice was the supreme instrument. A type of music that is often scorned by my more serious-minded musical friends.

Italy has always been the treasure chest where I have found ecstatic pleasures and Italian opera, I suppose, is right at the top of my list.

I remembered the English writer C.S. Lewis ( in his book The Allegory of Love) when I was listening to this fabulous singing. He was writing about the wonderful medieval Italian epic Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso with its tales of knights, battles, love, adventures and magic and which has been raided many times for Italian opera plots and which also suffers at times at the hands of serious-minded people:

“if you can abandon ‘high seriousness,’ if brilliance, harmony and sheer technical supremacy are enough, in your eyes, to constitute greatness..[Orlando Furioso] ranks with The Iliad and The Divine Comedy”.

It is an Italian gift I believe, this ability of mixing excitement, sensuality and joy. So I may have found the ideal way to relax during my protracted convalescence.

C.S. Lewis was discussing Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso when he speculated on what might be his ideal happiness if he could forget a bout the future for the pleasures of today. His words have stayed with me since university days when I first discovered the wonders of Italian literature:

“My own choice, with some reservation, would be to read the Italian epic – to be convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day.”

I haven’t had a “small illness” but think I have earned the right to indulge in C.S. Lewis’ vision of happiness. I would add the music of Rossini and Bellini ( some of Donizetti too) to this. Reading a year’s worth of Gramophone too must surely rank as one of those pleasures. It might just be what the doctor and my kungfu instructor ordered.

I am going to put on that cd right now and then move on to November 2008…I wonder what happened then.

Here is Juan Diego Florez, I hate him, only joking, singing Rossini just as it was meant to be sung:


  1. He's on R3 at the moment with the wondrous Joyce diDonato (the one who injured her ankle and carried on regardless).

    He's very good, but (a bit like Pavarotti) I don't feel there is anything behind it; I think Domingo with that rich quality is more to my liking.

  2. Hi Claudio, I love Domingo of course – in certain roles – and actually worked with him once and found him as everyone says, highly professional and all that. I guess I am a voice man – a canary fancier they used to say – and I just found Pavarotti (in his early days) and Florez just vocally electrifying and I love that. I know what you are saying though even if "nothing" behind it is a bit too far.

    Domingo for me is a superlative musician, a really good actor, in opera singer terms, and, in his prime, flawless in his baritonal tenor. He too in a number of his recorded performances can go through the motions though – I have just been listening to the two of them in rival recordings of Un Ballo in Maschera and for once Pavarotti wins on the interpretation/subtlety score.

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