Juan Diego Florez inaugurates WNO's Placido Domingo Celebrity Series

I've said before that the up-where-the-air-is-rare kind of arts need stars as much as TV and movies do. Stars generate excitement and interest; they raise, or at least solidify, standards (well, they're should).

The Washington National Opera's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series of vocal concerts was launched Sunday afternoon by a certified, irresistible star -- Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez -- and will continue with another, Bryn Terfel this season, Angela Gheorghiu and Deborah Voigt next season. Cool.


The concert Florez gave at the Kennedy Center with the WNO Orchestra, deftly conducted by Alessandro Vitiello, generated terrific sparks.

The tenor did not just settle for the coloratura pyrotechnics he's famous for, although that alone would have made the event memorable -- after all, you don't often hear such clean runs, as he effortlessly dispatched in

arias by Cimaroas and Rossini, or such brightly focused high Cs, as he popped out (all nine of 'em) in his calling card, "Ah! mes amis" from Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment."

What really impressed on Sunday was the colorful expression in the singing. I've heard some performances of his where the tone and volume level didn't change all that much, but here he produced plenty of variety. My favorite examples were the eloquent shading in "Ah leve-toi soleil" from "Romeo et Juliette" (repertoire not immediately associated with Florez) and the exquisite diminuendo in "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'elisir d'amore".

The general public has been used to a beefier tenor sound for a long time now, so the light, bright timbre of Florez stands out all the more. His sensible career choices, his innate musicality and his unmistakable enthusiasm for the art make him something of a marvel. And with all of those qualities in such abundance, Sunday's concert for WNO was quite the spirit-lifter.

Note, too, the contributions of WNO's orchestra. Aside from a few smudges and tonal thinness in the violin section, the ensemble did admirable work, both partnering Florez and on its own in an assortment of orchestral moments form opera. Concertmaster Oleg Rylatko played downright radiantly in the famous "Meditation" from Massenet's "Thais."

If you missed Sunday's concert or just want to relive some of it, here's a performance (taken from a performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) of the vibrant "La flor de la canela" by Chabuca Granda, which Florez delivered as his final encore:

PHOTO (by Joseph Gallauer) COURTESY OF WNO