Monday, January 17, 2011

Vittorio's Secret

Sam Shirakawa has recently caught two performances with up and coming new tenor Vittorio Grigolo:

8 JANUARY 2011

12 JANUARY 2011

As I approached Berlin's Deutsche Oper on Saturday evening, January 8th, there were so many people begging for spare tickets, you'd have thought that Pekka Nuotio was making a comeback. Actually, the crush was being caused by the debut of Vittorio Grigolo as Alfredo in La Traviata.

In case you haven't yet heard the hoopla, Grigolo is being touted as the next/new Pavarotti.

It may well be Grigolo's destiny to become as well known as the late Luciano. (As a youngster, Grigolo was cast as the Shepherd in a performance of Tosca with Pavarotti in Rome.) But comparisons with El P are misplaced, because Grigolo stands a good chance of becoming an icon of his own making--if he can keep up with himself. Pavarotti was an oddity, a mega-chubby with the voice of an angel, who gradually transformed his God-given pipes atop his devil-endowed adiposity from freakadello to force of nature.

Grigolo, on the other hand, has an even more formidable challenge before him. He is proving with success, that handsome is as handsome does. If he and the forces backing him can continue convincing the public that what he does is more handsome than what his rivals are doing, the sky is hardly the limit.

At the moment, a surprising number of attractive young Italianate tenors are making the rounds, who are poised for super-stardom -- Beczala, Calleja, Cutler, Poli, Polenzani -- for starters. Several of them have arguably finer voices than Grigolo’s. But he's pulling ahead of the pack. and it's not hard to figure out Vittorio's Secret: he’s in full possession of the proverbial Total Package -- voice, Valentino (Rudolf) eyes, and, above all, public relations savvy. He has a natural affinity for making his estimable bundle of goodies project Hunkatino con bella voce -- as evidenced during a curtain call, when he swept his Violetta of the evening (Patrizia Ciofi) off her feet and carried her into the wings. The crowd went wild. Have any of his peers the spontaneous wherewithal to do that? Imagine Pavarotti trying to haul Sutherland off her porkas.

Since I last heard Grigolo as Gennaro in Washington two seasons ago, his voice has darkened and grown larger. At this performance, though, his top notes turned a tad stringent, noticeably at the conclusion of the second act cabaletta "O mio rimorso." While his acting remains primitive (could someone please tie his hands to prevent him from slashing and thrusting?), he moves about the stage with assurance in the late Götz Friedrich's production from 1999 and portrays the younger Germont as an ardent, impetuous young man. Musically, he bridges the technical and stylistic gap between Donizetti and Verdi easily and sings unselfconsciously from the heart, which seduces you into forgiving some arhythmia.

Patritzia Ciofi makes the most of a smallish voice by portraying Violetta as a dying consumptive out for one last glorious fling. Her decorations in "Sempre libra" were accurate but came up short on oomph. She was at her best in bed in the final act.

The surprise of the evening, I’m glad to report, was Leo Nucci as Pere Germont. I've heard him many times in several theaters over the past 20 odd years, and I’ve almost invariably found him to be vocal valarian. But age has animated his singing and enlivened his delivery big time. On this occasion, he nearly stole the show.

Nucci's appearances in Germany have been seldom, following his refusal to appear in a concept production of Rigoletto in 1986 in Hamburg. Rolf Lieberman, who was General Manager of the Hamburg State Opera at the time, ultimately fired the director in order to keep Nucci, a decision that the German opera public resented for years to come. But the audience in Berlin on the 8th was more than willing to let bygones pass by.

The grace under pressure that all three principals showed at this performance was no insignificant achievement, given some out-to-lunch conducting by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. In one glaring goof, he trigger-jumped the end of “Deh’ miei bolenti spiriti” by signaling the final chord while Grigolo was still holding the penultimate note.

Vittorio Grigolo
Several days later, Grigolo turned up in Dortmund to kick off a six-city concert tour of Germany and Switzerland. The near-sellout crowd included a gaggle of foreigners who obviously were there to find out if there's more to Grigolo than meets the ear.

The event turned out to be extraordinary. Grigolo came out swinging with nothing less than Corrado’s first act aria from Il Corsaro. As a follow up, he launched into “Ma se m’e forza perdito” from Ballo in Maschera, before yielding the stage to Sonya Yoncheva, a young lyrico-spinto, who was brought along for fill-in and duets. She rendered a creditable “O mio babbino caro.” All satisfactory and convincing.

But the defining moment for Grigolo came toward the end of the first half of the concert. The program (5 Euros, btw) listed the three contiguous sections that conclude the first act of La Boheme as separate items. Why? As Grigolo, alone, introspectively began “Che gelida manina...” he picked out a woman sitting the first row and sang the aria to her. At one point, he knelt at the edge of the stage apron and all but reached for her hand.

For taking this electrifying risk, the audience gave Grigolo a show-stopping standing ovation. After that he could do no wrong. Whether he was crooning “Amapola” or embracing Yoncheva in a Mario Lanza/Dorothy Kirsten driven “La Vie en Rose” in a sucession of gelato e cappucino cross over numbers that constituted the second half of the program, Grigolo demonstrated that he knows how to make love to his vocal partner as well as to his audience. No meatball he.

Which is not to say, that he was flawless. Coordinating convincing pianissimi proved problematic in several instances, notably in an otherwise heartfelt delivery of “Una furtiva lagrima.” His lower register has support but can sound shallow at times. All told though, his voice is in a more advanced state of refinement than Pavarotti’s was at roughly the same age, when I first heard him as Tebaldo in La Scala’s production of I Capuletti e i Montechi in 1965. If Grigolo can keep his instrument as fresh as it sounds in its present estate, keep his oft-flaunted abs in six-pack condition, and keep at bay the lunatic fringe that inevitably attracts the adulation he is wont to invite, the opera world may sustain a longer autumn than some expect.

Lest we forget, the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie (Northwest German Philharmonic) under the stylish direction of Pier Giorgio Morandi performed their backup duties admirably.

©Sam H Shirakawa

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