Sunday, April 24, 2011

The surprise debut of Arnold Rawls

Il Trovatore - Metropolitan Opera, 4/23/2011
Alvarez/Rawls, Radvanovsky, Zajick, Hvorostovsky, Kocan / Armiliato

So the all-star cast of the Met's Il Trovatore was rolling along, with most of the virtues of the production premiere (though without David McVicar's actual directoral presence, some of the dramatic sharpness had been traded for vocal machismo -- which, given the opera, was fine). Stefan Kocan, impressive already this year as Sparafucile, used his character-soaked bass to be the first plausible successor to the original Ferrando Kwangchul Youn, while Sondra Radvanovsky brought the house down with her first solo scene (Tacea la notte... di tale amor), as she always has with her second.

Cue the expectant audience, back from the night's sole intermission (between Acts II and III), faced with a man in front of the curtain. Marcelo Alvarez is ill, he says, and Arnold Rawls will make his debut as the replacement Manrico. Rawls has just found out, and so needs to dress and prepare.

Alvarez had actually sung the first half well, with the firmness of voice and character that made him the strongest part of this season's fall revival. But we'd seen this two years ago: Alvarez dropped out midway, replaced then (and for the following performance) by Philip Webb for his debut. Webb was plausible, but not much better than the singer we later saw making a hash of Normanno through the otherwise vocally magnificent Calleja/Dessay/Tezier/Youn Lucia.

Arnold Rawls, as many quick smartphone searches discovered, is an American tenor who's sung mostly in American regional houses. His only prior engagement with the Met seems to have been covering Marcello Giordani in Manon Lescaut. He'd sung Manrico elsewhere, of course, but there's not much sterner a test than coming on cold for "Ah si ben mio" followed immediately by "Di quella pira". At the sold-out Met.

Fortunately, Rawls turned out to be more Gary Lehman than Philip Webb. He's not as polished a tenor as Alvarez -- the voice isn't as thoroughly even and whole, and his Italian vowels aren't the greatest. But he confidently filled the big house with his spacious clear voice, and capped off "Di quella pira" with an endless, nerve-free high note. He showed good underlying musicianship, and even -- with, I assume, no rehearsal whatsoever -- acted the finale reasonably well. (His approximation of a trill in "Ah si ben mio" wasn't great, but he tried something there.) A stellar debut under huge pressure.

Rawls' success got me to thinking about the vagaries of career opportunity. It's likely that anyone with the truly off-the-charts sound of, say, Joseph Calleja will get his chances everywhere no matter what, but a small fraction of even international names have that sort of singular quality. Most have, instead, a compilation of above-average virtues ever polished and improved into a characteristic whole -- something not necessarily evident on a short impression or from pedigree. The superstar of a smaller house may be swallowed whole by the Met, while a solid performer elsewhere may be just as solid here -- or may have improved her art to have crossed into greatness.

Rawls himself has, as I've said, room to improve and I suppose the fact that he was the one on call and in fact got his chance validates whatever system got him on stage last night. But the fact that a Verdi tenor -- the most famously high-valued voice type -- of his basic Met-scale gift has been working obscurely in the regional round shows that either we actually have opened another golden age of tenors (and I'm open to this possibility) or that something isn't quite right. (He's not fat or particularly wooden onstage.)

Note that Rawls is the second emergency debut tenor I've seen this season (after Roberto di Biasio in Boccanegra); both, along with second-time emergency replacement (after a 2003 Almaviva) tenor Bruce Sledge, were better than the guy whose agent hyped him to the NYT as "the next Pavarotti". Rawls was, I think, the best of these three (or four, if you like), and though he wasn't quite up to the debut standard Yonghoon Lee set in Don Carlo, I certainly hope he gets more chances at this level and the development that implies. Gary Lehman is, after all, premiering both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the Met next season.


  1. how did Dmitri Hvorostovsky sing???

    Do you think Rawls will sing on the 30th in hd transmission?

  2. I was at the performance, and in my opinion Rawls was quite incredible. I am glad that I had a chance to witness his debut.

  3. Rawls opened the 500 million dollar opera house in Miami for Florida Grand Opera four and a half years ago singing Radames. He sang all 12 performances, filling in for another tenor who cancelled late in the game. Many thought another more "famous" tenor should come to open the house, but Arnold was really splendid -- clarion high notes and good timbre for the heroic scenes.

  4. Arnold Rawls is one of the finest singers I've ever heard. His voice is raw and edgy and still beautiful. He has no fear, and he grabs on to high notes in a thrilling and emotional manner that I don't think I've ever seen before. This chance was well-deserved and I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

  5. could some write here how Dmitri Hvorostovsky was singing?

  6. Hvoro was basically the same as last time, though he *looked* a bit more strained when singing the big stuff (though Di Luna's solo is of course more lyrical). Honestly, I was more enjoying his relish in the tormented bad guy role -- something the more traditional Verdi-voiced Lucic doesn't quite get -- too much to get all that comparative.

    While I'm mentioning the non-tenor singers, I should note two things. First, as nice as it is for Radvanovsky to join the club of singers who rate a NYT puff piece, I'm worried in the long run about her dropping weight. But she's done well keeping her voice in shape (interesting that she had surgery not long after those amazing 2001 performances of Luisa Miller), and she wasn't particularly large to start with (cf. Callas or Voigt), so perhaps it will be OK.

    Second, Zajick sounds positively rejuvenated compared to the original run. None of the difficulties from then (perhaps the indisposition rumors that year were correct), and the chest notes still hit like a locomotive.

  7. I was also at this performance and thought Rawls was amazing. (My wife and I had come down to NYC from Toronto for the weekend.) A little nervous at first but he settled very quickly and took command. I was one of the people standing and yelling bravo when he took his curtain call. Can't wait to hear more from him. I'd love to hear him sing here in Toronto.

  8. Buzz from NC - I happened to be at this performance as well. I agree that Rawls has a raw edgy sound from his heart that demands attention. I couldn't hear the original tenor - maybe he was sick. Rawls took over the show once he quit over singing when he first came on - i guess he had 5 or 10 minutes to warm up or something - crazy - Fantastic job under amazing pressure - glad I witnessed that.

  9. after years of my silence --his voice filling our church
    and recordings rekindled my voice and passion for singing- a debt of gratitude can never express the joy of being able to sing again


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.