Hitting high notes

<strong>Matilde di Shabran; La Fille du régiment</strong>

Juan Diego Flórez <em>Universal/Decca</e

Opera is a blood sport: its duets are duels, and high notes - especially those of the strutting, swaggering Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez - triumphantly announce a kill. Flórez justifies the revival of Rossini's long, odd Matilde di Shabran, in which the vocal skirmishes dramatise the age-old battle of the sexes. As the iron-hearted warrior Corradino, Flórez vents tirades of factitious fury and apoplectically bans women from his realm. The sly heroine Matilde (deliciously sung by the soprano Annick Massis) succeeds in humbling him, and concludes with her own anthem in praise of indomitable womanhood. Flórez is silenced, his D-flats and E-naturals dampened: this, for a tenor, is equivalent to emasculation.

The biological combat is observed by the mendicant poet Isidoro (Bruno de Simone), who delivers a scurrilous commentary. As a professional faker, he manufactures emotion to order, improvising amorous sonnets on request; he even kills off Matilde, then brings her back to life so the work can remain officially a comedy. Through Isidoro, Rossini ironically derides the mad, obsessive artifice of his own opera.

Flórez bounces back in Decca's new DVD of Donizetti's La Fille du régiment, filmed in Genoa. Here he joins the army to accompany his girlfriend, who is a vivandière, and celebrates his enlistment with a notorious aria that contains nine successive high Cs, popped like champagne corks. Briefly miming modest reluctance during the ovation, Flórez then gives an encore, with nine more of the effervescent notes. Later, after a soulful lyrical lament, he emerges from character to blow kisses to his fans. This may not be music-drama, but it's certainly opera, at its most crudely and irresistibly thrilling.