The State of the Art

It’s hard to know how to react to opera hype. No one in 2010 wants to buy into a media construction, but when it comes to opera, the relevant media are so predictable and transparent (a major PR coup for a singer consists of some combination of the cover of Opera News and a profile in The Times) that it is very simple to know who is hyped, and more difficult to know whether the hype is unjustified or misleading.

The photogenic tenor Vittorio Grigolo, the latest singer to receive the “next Pavarotti” mantle, is certainly having a moment. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in La Bohème on Saturday, hours after his face showed up on doorsteps all over the country on the front page of the Times Arts and Leisure section. Sony released his debut CD, The Italian Tenor (note the definitive article!), a couple of weeks ago. In the scheme of contemporary pop culture, a big-deal profile and a CD launch are hardly objectionable, but in opera, when a small quiver of attention by normal standards equals a major media push, this is a full-court press. No critic wants to seem taken in by hype, but no one wants to stand in the way of a thrilling narrative of success, either.

So what actually happened at the performance? As usual, the hype was a bit much–there wasn’t the “metaphysical connection with the audience” that Peter Gelb said he observed at one of Mr. Grigolo’s rehearsals in London–but the tenor had a very respectable Met debut nonetheless. There are whole sections of his voice, particularly in the middle, that are simply lovely; when he’s feeling comfortable and in his sweet spot, he can spin out gorgeous phrases, easy but powerful. He was clearly nervous (and with good reason; this was one of the big nights of his career), and he bullied Rodolfo’s short but challenging opening mini-aria, “Nei cieli bigi.”

Throughout the first act, certain phrases trailed off toward their end when he seemed to be pacing himself, getting ready for an upcoming high note; he kept doing this in the great first-act aria, “Che gelida manina.” The very top of his voice–particularly high C, the infamous note in the tenor repertoire–is not his strongest suit: Mr. Grigolo’s C is muscular and steely rather than ideally free. But the high notes right below C are often deeply satisfying. And for long stretches, particularly in the third and fourth acts, once the pressure was off a bit, he proved himself one of the rare tenors–indeed, one of the rare singers–these days whom you can just enjoy, without having to worry or make excuses.

Mr. Grigolo’s stage presence is more adorable than ardent; his nervousness translated into hyperactivity. At first it was exciting to see a Rodolfo with a truly teenage impetuosity. When Mimi knocked on his door, he sniffed his armpits, checked himself out in the mirror, fixed his hair and bounded around, all in about five seconds. But the exaggerated physical abandon got a bit tiresome. He has natural stage instincts–when the crucial first-act candles went out, he managed to find a match and relight them, all while keeping up with the score–and it will be interesting to see whether a good director can focus all that talent and energy.

Next to Mr. Grigolo’s effusive Rodolfo, the Mimi of Maija Kovalevska was well sung but rather generic; there was little fragility in her voice, even in the heartbreaking third and fourth acts. The tenor was not the only debutant Saturday night. Takesha Meshé Kizart, a big-voiced soprano with a tantalizingly unsettled quality to the tone, played the supporting role Musetta, but it is no secret that Ms. Kizart has set her sights on the major parts of Puccini and Verdi. Her voice has the size and complexity to make it possible, and she was partly wasted on the coquettish Musetta, a fun but fairly one-dimensional character, and not a great showcase for Ms. Kizart’s talents. Fabio Capitanucci as Marcello was, like Ms. Kovalevska’s Mimi, perfectly competent but a bit characterless; Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, conducting at the Met for the first time, overindulged some moments, but was just fine. (“Just fine,” though, is pretty remarkable when you consider that conductors leading revivals of standard operas at the Met get all of a rehearsal and a half.)


A CONDUCTOR WITH quite a bit more pull at the Met, and who thus gets quite a bit more rehearsal time, is Valery Gergiev, who has good nights and bad nights but was thrillingly on for the premiere of Stephen Wadsworth’s straightforward new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov last week. While James Levine at his best gives the orchestra a warm sheen, Mr. Gergiev gets a sound out of them that’s rich and rough–in the strings especially, there’s a live-ness to the playing that you rarely hear at the house. Vocally, the Boris ensemble was as consistently good as any cast at the Met in a while. The great bass Rene Pape, as Boris, was perhaps more restrained than the nearly manic Boris audiences are used to, and his voice isn’t huge. But he can be almost scarily eloquent, with a deeply affecting vulnerability. Mikhail Petrenko was a big-voiced Pimen, and Aleksandrs Antonenko, a tenor who is having big successes in Europe, trumpeted his way through the unforgiving part of Dmitri, the pretender to the Russian throne.

It was a far better ensemble than that of Rigoletto, which at its premiere had not a single singer who really shone. (To be fair, it seems as though illness was running rampant through the cast. And the debuting conductor, Paolo Arrivabeni, was excellent, likely working under the same difficult conditions as the Bohème conductor.) Tales of Hoffmann, in Bartlet Sher’s dismal, cheap-looking production, fared a bit better: a clear and elegant tenor in Giuseppe Filianoti; a smallish-voiced but menacing villain in Ildar Abdrazakov; and an unremarkable trio of singers as Hoffmann’s three love interests. Hibla Gerzmav, who sang Antonia, has been getting her own bit of attention, but though the middle voice is lush and round, the tone whitens unpleasantly toward the top. Following the hype remains, as always, hit or miss. The State of the Art