Carlos Álvarez is a protégé of Plácido Domingo, and you can hear why. His style and repertoire - even his platform manner - are those of the younger Domingo, had he remained a baritone.
Given that this was not a long programme it took a while to warm up. The Philharmonia, under Daniel Lipton, opened with the Overture to The Barber of Seville. This was unhurried and sober, and set the tone for the first half, which comprised 19th century operatic arias. Álvarez was most successful in the two Verdi pieces - "Il balen" from Il Trovatore, and Rodrigo's death scene from Don Carlo. Álvarez has sung this on stage a number of times and he must be ideal casting. His sincerity and beautiful tone were very moving and he inspired the Philharmonia to some wonderful playing - notably from the brass, who played immaculately all evening.
The Carmen selection was less successful. The orchestra gave us the First Suite, but after the Rossini opener, why not something less familiar? The performance was undercharacterised with a particularly unseductive Séguedille; and Escamillo doesn't seem to suit Álvarez - his sound is too aristocratic and lyrical. We needed a less polished and dignified delivery to explain this choice, but his Rodrigo sent us off for the interval much happier.
The second part was devoted to zarzuela excerpts. Again, Álvarez was not helped by the orchestral opener, the Preludio to La revoltosa - no hint that this is a comedy. The Philharmonia played beautifully, but it felt altogether too watchful, without the brightness you'd expect from a smaller theatre band.
Álvarez made his debut in La del manojo de rosas at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in 1990, and he clearly still loves the genre. We had six songs including two encores, and again he was most successful in the personal, intense pieces. The Romanza from La del soto del Parral was particularly powerful, where Germán sings of his love for his estranged wife. The small audience was clearly won over by this.
This was an all too rare opportunity to hear zarzuela in London, but as a showcase for Álvarez it was unsatisfactory. He has a glorious voice and sings with a commitment that must make him a compelling performer on stage. But he has a more limited stylistic range than his mentor Domingo, and the first half, wonderfully sung, had little momentum in a concert setting. The zarzuela selections would have benefited from a smaller orchestra and a more intimate hall with a warmer acoustic. But many thanks to sponsor Ian Rosenblatt and the Philharmonia for giving London some zarzuela. Let us hope for a full production before too long.
© Edward Halsted 2002