Kovalevska, Kizart, Grigolo, Capitanucci, Parks, Shenyang, Plishka / Rizzi Brignoli
On reading the season announcement I was sure this was to be the season of Boheme. Met management had, it seemed, finally realized that they had a potential Mimi for the ages in Maija Kovalevska and engaged the lyric tenor riches of our day: Joseph Calleja (though he doesn't, unfortunately, actually sing with Kovalevska), Piotr Beczala, Ramon Vargas, all already names to conjure with -- and a wild card, former popera man Vittorio Grigolo. On seeing the first performance... Well, the Puccini magic we saw in 2008 may reappear, but it won't be for a while.
It wasn't a great day for the three debuting Italians. Grigolo has very promising sounds in his voice, to be sure, and the instrument got stronger and more authoritative as the night went along. That said, he basically ruined the night's performance. Acting and phrasing throughout with all the composure of a hyperactive squirrel, the 33-year-old Italian could neither carry a single phrase to completion without some overdone breath or dynamic emphasis nor ever (until a nice clutch with Marcello at the very last) ease up his stage fidgeting long enough to engage with his castmates. Just as he fails to join and assist Puccini's phrase-built musical framework, Grigolo disrupts the setting and story's coalescence with his monomaniacal to and fro. (His physical presence is not otherwise compelling.)
Nerves at a big house debut? Perhaps, but reports from elsewhere suggest that this is, in fact, his characteristic way. And it fits his background: the need to be maximally "interesting" moment-to-moment, the cultivation of a narcissistic stage persona -- these are characteristic of mass-market pop aesthetics, though utterly destructive in opera. (Acquired bad habits or expressions of underlying affinity? Who knows.) Perhaps he'll be able to turn his gifts to better use, but given how he's being rewarded now it seems unlikely... (And consider that he basically needs to learn how to express a musical line and how to play with others onstage -- which is to say, how to be a musician and an actor.) We'll see, but I doubt Rodolfo will ever be a good fit.
Well-traveled conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli (another debutant) seems to be a believer in flexible, ever-shifting tempi and has some ideas in this vein that either (1) have not yet been wholly absorbed by the cast and Met orchestra or (2) are a disastrously poor fit for La Boheme. Nicola Luisotti he's not, and he (or the insufficient absorption of his conception) was as much to blame for the flat evening as anyone.
The third new Italian was Fabio Capitanucci, who made little impression as Marcello. In fact, the supporting bohemians were a surprisingly flat lot -- Capitanucci (about 35) and young Lindemann singers Edward Parks (a 2008 Met Council Finals winner) and Shenyang may have interesting voices in development, but none was able to bring the sort of personality to their parts that we'll see from, e.g., Peter Mattei in February. Shenyang did nevertheless give a sensitively-felt sing of Colline's coat aria that may have been the male musical highlight of the night.
Also somewhat out of place was the fourth debuting performer, young black American soprano Takesha Meshe Kizart. She had by far the most interesting sound of the debutees, with a strong, quick-vibrato dramatic coloratura middle that suggests a big future. But though she's already singing Verdi's two Leonoras (yikes!), the top isn't fully formed (and more of a blast than seductive) and she's too well schooled to be using much chest voice at the bottom yet (so it's inaudible). Definitely one to watch -- and it was a pleasure seeing her delight at her well-cheered debut -- but Musetta isn't going to be a staple role.
Comparisons, then. To me the first is Massimo Giordano, who did his best to massacre the last few Kovalevska Bohemes. But the contrast is more revealing. Giordano is sort of a classic tenor ox, decent enough but bereft (so far) of ideas and grace. Grigolo is more skilled, this is clear. But Grigolo had a worse effect on the show, perhaps for that very reason. Giordano generally (though not always) knows what he doesn't know, and sticks to basic stuff. Grigolo knows a bunch of tricks, but has no clue when he's supposed (or, as almost always, not supposed) to throw them in. He thinks he's a much better musician than he is, which is deadly.
Press flattery has ventured a mention of the now-crashed Rolando Villazon. But this is silly: yes, Villazon was nervous and energetic, but that was half the story. If Villazon couldn't control his feelings or his vocal health, he always (when healthy) commanded the musical line and used his breath well to spin long phrases. And his energy was always directed and shaped into the tale, never just look-at-me restlessness.
And Pavarotti!? Only one who only remembers/imagines Pav-the-spectacle could make such a bad joke. For anyone who heard or hears his performances, the truth emerges: forget the pure stupendous sound (which Grigolo doesn't approach anyway) -- Pavarotti was great because of his incredible bel canto musicality (something he was born with and polished over many pre-superstardom years -- and something his rival Domingo couldn't match for all the latter's work and facility for learning). He was simply incapable of singing a bad Italian phrase. Nothing, absolutely nothing in Grigolo's performance last night hinted at that trait -- quite the opposite.
(Anna Netrebko is perhaps the most interesting comparison, but that's for another day. Let's just say I'll be pleased if all of Grigolo's upcoming engagements are opposite her with Domingo in the pit.)
If you want to hear a serious "next Pavarotti", wait until Calleja sings Rodolfo in December. If you want to hear a great performance of La Boheme, you may have to wait until the all-around casts (with, yes, great Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as Marcello) of January and February. I have no idea what the press will say, but Grigolo is certainly the weakest of the season's four Rodolfo options. There is no reason to see this show until he leaves.