Italian tenor VITTORIO GRIGOLO sings French repertoire with striking panache. This month, he takes on Roméo in the Met’s new staging of Gounod’s opera.
by Jennifer Melick. Photographs by Ball & Albanese.
Photographed by Ball & Albanese at New York City’s Columbus Citizens Foundation
Fashion styling by Joseph Episcopo
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik
White cotton shirt by Gucci; double-breasted wool vest by Suit and Supply; blue cotton slim trousers by Suit and Supply; cashmere tan coat custom designed by Grigolo for Caruso; silk pocket square by Bagutta
© Ball & Albanese
THERE'S A LOT MORE TO SINGING than high notes. Still, it must be said that in last spring’s Elisir d’Amore at the Met, Vittorio Grigolo sang Nemorino’s high notes spectacularly and with ease. His supercharged performance gave life to this opera, whose small-scale charms can seem downright silly in the modern age. Grigolo radiated energy so extreme it was almost blinding, and he was seldom still. (It seems totally unsurprising that he used to race cars.) The voice—the center of this energy field, which brings everything into focus—has a gloriously sunny, Italianate timbre, a ringing top and a soulful, slightly covered lower range. He’s got power and stamina. Grigolo has drawn comparisons to Pavarotti, his fellow Italian, “the King of the high Cs,” but Grigolo’s vibrato is faster, less integrated and more deliberately applied in the pop manner. He likes to milk a phrase, push it and pull it this way and that. He often closes his eyes at the climax, and it seems to take conscious effort for him to let the long lyrical arc of a melodic line just happen—but when he does, it’s glorious. Occasionally, Grigolo’s excitement causes him to push his voice to the very edge, beyond what’s necessary, making the words difficult to hear. But all around, his is one of the best-produced, healthiest voices in today’s strong field of tenors.
Critics are sharply divided on Grigolo’s sometimes over-the-top approach, though many agree that the star quality of the singing itself is more nuanced than his stage presence suggests. New York audiences seem drawn to his overheated emotional style, at least to judge from last spring’s “Una furtiva lagrima,” which got at least two minutes’ sustained applause and yelling at the Met’s March 10 Elisir. (On Twitter the next day, Grigolo gushed, “Great premiere last night at the Met!!! I never had such a blasting crowd.”)
At present, French Romantic repertoire is arguably the best showcase for Grigolo’s no-holds-barred approach, his emotional flutter, the sometimes heaving messa di voce. Gounod’s hotheaded Roméo and Massenet’s tormented Werther are the twin peaks of his Met 2016–17 season. He describes Werther as “dramatically hermetical. He keeps everything inside, so it’s destroying the character, this love he is wearing inside. Werther kills himself because he knows that he cannot have this girl, because she is promised to Albert. Werther is going to add a lot of flavor on my French repertoire. This is an opera that you cannot start at the beginning of your career. You really need to have a full palette of color in your voice, full emotion. I am very proud of putting this new opera in my repertoire.” Reviews of his staged role debut at Covent Garden this past June (with Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte) described a “Pourquoi me réveiller” sung “with such passion and vigour as to almost physically overwhelm her” (The Stage). In February, New Yorkers will get to hear his second take on the role (not counting a concert version at Deutsche Oper in 2014) in the Richard Eyre production costarring Isabel Leonard’s Charlotte.
Gray cotton and wool pinstripe jacket and trousers by Brooks Brothers; cotton dress shirt by Gucci; leather dress shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo
© Ball & Albanese
GRIGOLO HAS BEEN PERFORMING Roméo et Juliette since 2010. For the Bartlett Sher production opening in December, he says, “Diana Damrau and I have great chemistry, so I think it is going to be a bomb night! Like we did in Manon. Roméo is one of my favorite roles, tremendously deep, and it gives a lot of emotion, and the music is incredible. Roméo has more temper and is more passionate. They were in love, they met, they had the possibility, they had it in their hands—it’s a strange, bad-ass opera!”
You can hear Romeo et Juliette bad-assery like “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” and “C’est là! Salut tombeau sombre et silencieux”—plus Werther’s “Pourquoi me réveiller,” Don José’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” and arias by Meyerbeer and Offenbach—on Grigolo’s 2014 solo CD The Romantic Hero. That recording is the fourth of six planned on the Sony label. “I actually am a little bit upset, because it’s been two years already, since the French Romantic heroes [album was released]. I don’t want to release any album that doesn’t have a story or a meaning. I would have loved to do something this year, but we didn’t have the chance. They were not thinking what I was thinking. I had an idea to do some balletto, to [take] the most beautiful ballets and put lyrics on top of it. They didn’t agree, so we are trying to find a right, mutual agreement. I don’t blame them, because as people are coming a little bit less to the opera, they are also selling less, you know?”
Selling opera—and finding new audiences for it—is something Grigolo has strong ideas about. “I was the first one who did an opera in the train station,” he says, recalling the Traviata he performed with the Zurich Opera Orchestra at that city’s central train station in 2008. “In the middle of the people, it was a little bit crazy, people coming with the mobile phones, saying, ‘Can you sing this to my mom?’” This past year, he says, “I had the chance to do Elisir d’Amore in Malpensa, the Milano airport. I was a flight-crew member singing ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ right in the middle of the check-in area. It was really crazy. People loved it, though! Those are the things that we should do more in order to have younger generation.”
Grigolo as Werther in Benoît Jacquot’s staging at Covent Garden, 2016
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
On other aspects of opera, he is more old-fashioned. One example is subtitles. “If you’re performing in Italy, and the opera is in Italian,” he says, “you have to be able to understand from the singer what he is saying, otherwise sometimes you are a little bit distracted by the prompting of subtitles, and you lose some nuance.” He has an equally traditional take on audiences dressing up for the opera: “It’s a kind of respect for an artist when he sees people dressed up, who put forth a bit of an effort to see an opera, a special night. I think a woman loves when a man dresses up for them, the same way a man loves when she dresses up for him.”
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The confidence Grigolo exudes onstage is not manufactured. This is, after all, a singer whose 2010 solo album is called “The Italian Tenor.” Perhaps growing up in the shadow of the Three Tenors, and having himself attained star status early on in Italy, he sees the star possibilities of being an opera tenor. Asked whom he admires, he mentions not singers but Hollywood actors—Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep. He thinks of himself as an actor, something that comes into play both onstage and for the Met HD broadcasts.
“It is very different approach when you have a camera—it is like a movie,” he says. “You have to change every move that is theatrical, that you do sometimes in a kind of bigger way to reach the audience in the opera house—it has to be reduced to the minimum, still keeping this power. So it really is another work, when you have to work with cameras, and I had a great chance to learn that when I did the movie of Rigoletto in Italy, with Plácido as Rigoletto. Vittorio Storaro was the cinematographer. He is a star! I learned a lot from this experience from Plácido, and from Vittorio Storaro, who explained everything about perceiving the camera eyes on me, and being natural, and not looking at the prompter, feeling everything that is fluid, never losing character. The conductor is there, and when you are doing opera you can have a moment. But when you are doing HD, he is there with the tail of your eye.”
As for future opera roles, he mentions Un Ballo in Maschera, “one of Luciano’s favorite operas, so I think I have a good chance that it is going to be one of my favorites, too.” He laughs. “There is another one. In 2019, I plan to debut Tosca. I think the most beautiful opera music still remains Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece,” he says, referring to West Side Story. He has performed it around the world and was on a 2007 recording with Hayley Westenra. “I want to do West Side Story at the Met, actually! I’m going to tell Peter Gelb—that would be beautiful to do, with a beautiful, great production.” He says he thinks it would be “amazing,” then breaks spontaneously into “Tony, Tony.”
Wool and cotton peak lapel tuxedo by Salvatore Ferragamo; leather dress shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo; silk bow tie, Hermès; jewelry Grigolo’s own (worn throughout).
© Ball & Albanese
IN CONTRAST TO HIS ONSTAGE presence, Grigolo can be surprisingly muted in conversation, speaking softly, leaning back fully in his chair, sometimes yawning, conserving every last ounce of energy. (When we spoke, he had just gone through the entire Werther score with the Met’s John Fisher earlier that day.) You feel yourself in the presence of a hothouse tomato, carefully protected and nurtured so as to be at peak flavor for the next performance. Given the energetic way Grigolo bounds around onstage, it’s not surprising that he works out on the treadmill and swims to keep in shape. But during a week when the temperature has been mainly in the fifties, he allows no possibility for outside exercise. “There is a big difference in temperature between days—thirties and then sixties, a ten-degree Celsius difference—and this is very dangerous for the voice. I call it being in jail, although it is a nice jail from the Met. It’s like a beautiful golden cage—oh, it’s time the bird goes out, you take out the bird, does the performance, put back the bird—a bit of a story like this. It’s important to do that, because the prize is too important.”
As it turns out, this ebullient, confident singer is not completely unfamiliar with the usual opera-performer anxieties. “I have tension, I have fear also,” he says. “But if you’ve been working all your life for something, at least you should enjoy those moments. Otherwise, you suffer in a cage, and then when you go onstage you always suffer, and it’s better you do something else. I always say the courageous man is not somebody that doesn’t have any fear. A courageous man is somebody who though he has fear he is still willing to do it. That’s the difference. And there is nothing courageous here. It’s just trying to please yourself and somebody who is coming to listen to you.”
is managing editor of Symphony.