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.