The late British critic John Steane once said that he had sworn off all Montserrat Caballé performances after seeing a recital where the famously irreverent soprano, in one of her encores, did a caricature of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. (He considered it undignified.) I can only imagine what Mr. Steane would have thought of Vittorio Grigolo. Caballé was merely (perhaps) snarky. This afternoon at the Met, Grigolo sold his performance like the rent was due tomorrow and he was down to his last penny.  

After nearly every number (not just set of songs) he grabbed his accompanist’s hand, raised it triumphantly as if he’d just won a boxing match, and swept offstage dramatically. During one number he let the accompanist (Vincenzo Scalera) play the introduction by himself. Grigolo then snuck onstage through a side entrance and waved his hand in some mime gestures before singing. And this was all in the relatively dignified first half of the recital.

During the second half, Grigolo skirted the line between dignified classical recital and Vegas act. He hugged the piano like a security blanket. He hugged himself multiple times — I guess he really needs hugs. He kissed Scalera’s hand. He blew kisses at the audience — I guess he really needs kisses too. He threw his necktie into the audience. Next went the handkerchief. And another handkerchief. He attempted a Michael Jackson moonwalk. He received a bouquet of flowers, and proceeded to take the flower apart, petal by petal, and strew them over the stage as if he were playing “she loves me, she loves me not.” He clapped at the end of his own numbers, to encourage the audience to extend the ovation. He also made a rambling speech to the audience that in essence said, “You like me, you really really like me!!!”

To give you an idea of the Grigolo show, here’s a clip I found on youtube:

Yet only the most stuffy Beckmesser would sniff at Grigolo’s recital, because all of these antics were done with such an endearing, little boy enthusiasm. You can’t help but love someone who tries so hard to be loved. It’s infectious. Besides, Grigolo’s voice is the real thing. It’s not a popera voice at all. It has plenty of projection, power, and ping on top. The timbre is surprisingly sweet. And my oh my, does he like to show it off! Every phrase of every number had to be filled the brim with vocal effects. Crescendos, diminuendos, floated pppppp’s, vocal ornamentations, Grigolo did it all. If anything all those effects, impressive as they are individually, made for an overall fussiness to his singing.

The program was unpretentiously unambitious, something Pavarotti might have sung in the 1970’s, before he started doing those huge stadium spectacles. A group of Bellini songs, the Rossini ditty “La Danza,” and two opera arias (one from Donizetti’s Il Duca d’Alba and another from Verdi’s Il Corsaro) made up the first half of the program. The second half was devoted to Italian and Neapolitan salon songs. The usual suspects like Tosti’s “Ideale” and “L’ultima canzone,” plus Gastaldon’s “Musica proibita” and Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” were all there. As I said, every song’s applause was milked with dramatic bows, more bows, exits, and entrances. Barely an hour’s worth of music was stretched to two hours. The encores were “Una furtiva lagrima,” “Non ti scordar di me” and “O sole mio.”

The highlight was probably “Una furtiva lagrima,” which he sang with a considerable warmth and ravishing diminuendos. This combined with his boyishly eager stage persona made me think that he was auditioning for a future revival of L’elisir d’amore, where he’d certainly add some much needed fun to Bartlett Sher’s dour production. But even with those chestnuts like “O sole mio” you realize that Grigolo’s a rarity in the opera world today — an Italian tenor who really knows how this music should go. He knows when to showboat, and when to simply caress the music with his voice.

This was my first-ever live experience with Grigolo, and it made me an instant fan.

Photo: Catherine Ashmore