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Vittorio Grigolo has energy to spare as Romeo

The young tenor, starring in the L.A. Opera production, is riding a wave of opportunity with a world-class voice and star power.

November 18, 2011|By Christopher Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Vittorio Grigolo is Romo in L.A. Opera's revival of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Vittorio Grigolo is Romo in L.A. Opera's revival of Gounod's… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Ringing arias? Definitely. Acting chops? Absolutely. Stage presence? Unquestionably.

But where on a tenor checklist do you find the box to mark for "effortlessly scales 8-foot fences"?

Currently generating critical raves and audible audience gasps at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Vittorio Grigolo, in his local debut starring in L.A. Opera's "Romeo and Juliet," is not your average earthbound Italian tenor. Excessive carb-loading is out, Cirque-like skills are in. The 34-year-old's physicality powers a vital Romeo rare in theater or ballet, much less in French Grand Opera's take on the tale. (Two performances remain, matinees on Sunday and Nov. 26).

"Always with the singing and what I do on the stage, it is about giving the most energy, but maintaining focus so that I am in control," Grigolo explained. "My voice must maintain through the whole performance so this balance of energy and focus is everything for me to connect with the audience."

His appearance in Los Angeles marks a career point in which energy, focus and ambition are all coming together. He's spent a number of years climbing the ladder to establish his place as one of the top tenors in the world, with stops at the big three — the Met, Covent Garden and La Scala — now a given.

Plácido Domingo, who knows a thing or two about tenors (and conducted this production of "Romeo and Juliet"), believes that "[Vittorio] is absolutely committed to his performances, both vocally and dramatically. … he is as good as anyone I can think of."

Grigolo may treat the multi-tiered set as his personal jungle-gym — including repeated rapid climbs up and down the set — but his Juliet, Nino Machaidze, responds more to the substance of his performance than its sizzle.

"In this role, with so much emotion, we are giving [each other] lots of energy to get it back," said Machaidze, who also sports a world-class voice and star wattage. "Opera is always, first, to hear, but to give the audience 'feeling,' that is special."

That giving-back feeling was evidenced this week when Grigolo gave a seminar for music students at a downtown high school for the arts that was both a physiology tutorial on how to create vocal tones and a life lesson on not being stopped by obstacles that separate an artist from his passion. Afterward, Grigolo's party left the class and encountered a high, locked metal gate blocking him from his amped-up Audi in the parking lot.

While his L.A.-raised wife, Roshi, and a few tag-alongs wandered off to find a conventional exit, Grigolo, mirroring his first-act, on-stage assault on the Capulet compound in search of Juliet, instinctively and easily hopped the fence.

Grigolo's seize-the-moment philosophy then punctuated a 90-minute lunch as comments and questions flowed between bites. In no particular order he: professed a love of the Doors' Jim Morrison and was surprised to hear that the rock star attended UCLA; revealed his latest favorite pastime is flying the model, remote-control helicopters he builds; described how a question mark in the score of "Romeo and Juliet" helped him better understand the character; and was star-struck during a vacation off the southern Turkish coast at making the acquaintance of Oprah Winfrey, who was on the next boat over.

Along the way, details about his life emerged. An only child born in Tuscany, Italy, he spent most of his young life in Rome. His musical education began at 9 when he entered the Sistine Chapel choir. At 17, an alternative career choice of race car driver lost its allure after a minor crash.

At 18, an occurrence that speaks to life in Italy: He was exempted from military service after his voice was deemed a national treasure. In his 20s, he dabbled in pop music, including a stint in a Simon Cowell boy band called "Il Divo" and a recording as Tony in "West Side Story" plus a supporting international tour.

But opera took center stage, and he has proceeded into his 30s in voice-friendly Italian and French roles. The performance that proved to be a game changer came in London during summer 2010 when Grigolo was a substitute tenor at the Royal Opera, paired with the formidable soprano Anna Netrebko in Massenet's plangent "Manon." Audiences were ecstatic, reviews were through the roof.

Where previously he was auditioning for roles, "now they come to me and ask 'what would you like to sing and when?,'" said Grigolo, clearly delighted by his change of fortune. "And then we find the right conductor, see who the other singers might be and pick a director."

A scan of his calendar shows the world's top houses willing to comply with these terms: 2012 will find him back twice at Covent Garden in London as well as undertaking two roles at La Scala. ("Rigoletto" next November in Milan will have a local ring — he'll be paired anew with Machaidze and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel).

His operatic calendar is booked late into the decade, but planning is his wife's preoccupation. "I don't want to think about the next opera or what we will do next year," he said. "I want to be about now."

There is, however, one idea that does interest them both: "popera." It is a word Grigolo uses to describe his interest in both the serious opera and pop music worlds. In 2006 he released "In the Hands of Love," a collection of romantic pop ballads that crashed the top 10 on the British pop charts.

He and Roshi are aware of the classical world's disdain of anything that smacks of pop, but Grigolo doesn't see it as a problem. "If it is wonderful singing, why can't these things all happen?"

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