The first sign that things were not going well at Tuesday’s performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera was the surprisingly effortful singing of Vittorio Grigolo. Right off the bat, bounding onto the stage in a white tuxedo — the Met’s production is updated to 1960s Las Vegas — Mr. Grigolo looked the part of the womanizing Duke of Mantua.
But he acted nervously overeager and sang that way, too. During “Questa o quella,” the duke’s snappy aria declaring that all women entice him, Mr. Grigolo sounded almost desperate. This charismatic tenor, with his brawny voice and feral intensity, has become perhaps the most dependably exciting singer in opera. And when he slips into this unruly hyper-tenor mode, you often don’t mind because he also delivers blazing sound and passion.
But often on Tuesday, he just pushed too hard vocally and overplayed the duke’s unbridled sensuality. Nicola Luisotti’s stylish but deferential conducting just called more attention to Mr. Grigolo’s volatility.
Verdi’s jester, Rigoletto, is turned into this Rat Pack duke’s sidekick, though what exactly his responsibilities are remains a gap at the core of the director Michael Mayer’s concept. The baritone Roberto Frontali looked sympathetic as an older, bedraggled man in a loud sweater and frumpy coat. His voice, if not sizable or richly colored, is firm and appealing. But his honorable performance was ill-matched to Mr. Grigolo’s hotheaded aristocrat.
The soprano Nadine Sierra — as Gilda, the daughter Rigoletto tries to keep hidden at home — started unsure but blossomed. Her singing was technically assured, with clean coloratura passagework and shimmering top notes, and sensitively phrased. After the duke, pretending to be a poor student, romances Gilda and rushes off, you could see Ms. Sierra wondering what feelings this brash man had unleashed in her. Her reaction set the mood perfectly for the aria “Caro nome.”
Ms. Sierra sang it beautifully, though her sound has a bright, sunny glint that can feel hard-edged. She was at her best during the wrenching scene when Gilda, having been abducted by the duke’s henchmen, confesses her shame to her despairing father.
The earthy bass Stefan Kocan was a malevolent Sparafucile, a hired assassin. As his sister Maddalena, Ramona Zaharia, a rich-voiced mezzo-soprano, had a strong Met debut.
You want to hope that over the course of a 13-performance run, this “Rigoletto” should settle in. But there will be even more cast changes than scheduled, now that Bryan Hymel has withdrawn from the final eight performances as the duke, citing personal reasons. He will be replaced by no fewer than three different tenors.