Costanzo breaks the countertenor wall with a mix of the Baroque and contemporary

November 8, 2018 at 12:01 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Anthony Roth Costanzo performed a vocal recital for the Celebrity Series Wednesday night at Pickman Hall.

Anthony Roth Costanzo performed a vocal recital for the Celebrity Series Wednesday night at Pickman Hall.

In his Celebrity Series debut at Pickman Hall Wednesday night, Anthony Roth Costanzo challenged the popular and comfortable notion that the countertenor is a relic from the distant past. His thoughtful selections of old and new music moreover revealed just how equally virile and sensitive such a unique vocal timbre can be.

Costanzo presently enjoys wide fame and success. He has performed lead roles in operas by Handel, Jimmy Lopez, and Philip Glass with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the English National Opera, among other high-profile companies. Musical America recently named him singer of the year, and it is easy to hear why. His vocal tone is full and lush, and his vivid interpretations conveyed all the emotional nuances of the arias and songs on Wednesday’s program.

Music of Handel and Philip Glass may seem an odd pairing on paper, but Costanzo’s selections of works by the two delivered intriguing results. The singer views Handel as a proto-minimalist due to how the composer repeats phrases in his arias for dramatic effect, Costanzo often adding an edge-of-seat intensity.

But Costanzo’s performance never resulted in a forced reimagining—Handel’s music instead retained all its  familiar, idiomatic charm and he shaded the melodic repetitions with beauty and subtlety. In “Stille amare” from Tolomeo, his voice softened for hushed, intimate moments, and his tasteful trills and mordents resulted in gentle whirlpools of melody. His singing of “Rompo i lacci” from Flavio beamed with an alto’s sunny tonal richness, and “Pena tiranna” from Amadigi di Gaula, by contrast, echoed with poignant sorrow.

Glass’s “Liquid Days,” set to texts by David Byrne, shares the same tender feeling. The song bears all the trademarks of Glass’ style. Simple cross rhythms grind together and chromatic harmonies shift in the composer’s familiar modulations. Here as well as in “In the Arc of your Mallet,” from Monsters of Grace, Costanzo lofted wide, surging melodies with commitment. His wordless lines in “Encounter” from 1000 Airplanes on the Roof soared over the piano figures for delightfully eerie effect.

In each aria, pianist David Moody was a superb accompanist, his crisp playing providing sturdy support to Costanzo’s singing. Ornamentations in the Handel arias had just enough delicacy to allow the music to flower, and he handled Glass’s overlapping rhythms with clarity and precision.

Gregory Spears’ “Fearsome This Night,” from his “dance-opera”Wolf-in-Skins, found both musicians in searching phrases that underscored the lyrics’ strange and haunting tale. Spears’ song is based upon Welsh mythology and tells of a knight who was raised by wolves. Throughout his journeys, he is almost torn apart between the inner conflicts of reason and instinct. Spears paints an image of this mysterious knight through dolorous music. Lyrical piano phrases rise and fall beneath a slow, unwinding melody that conveys the character’s painful solitude. Like an actor portraying a scene, Costanzo, singing with warm, buttery tone, vividly captured all the melancholy and bitterness set within this music.

Arias and songs by Purcell and Britten explored similar themes of loneliness and inner thought. Purcell’s “One Charming Night” from The Fairy Queen found Costanzo in sharply articulated rhythms that made the streams and eddies of this music course with energy. His singing was also vibrant in “Seek not to know” from The Indian Queen. In “Sweeter than Roses,” Moody casted fluent lines underscored the song’s sensual imagery, and Costanzo’s voice radiated with a gentle glow.

Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” was expressed just as tenderly. Costanzo sang an introspective “Malo” from The Turn of Screw to reflect the thoughts of Miles, the tortured young boy of Britten’s opera. “Cradle Song for Eleanor” from The Red Cockatoo showed a side of Britten not normally heard. After listening to Gershwin, Britten emulated jazzy writing by crafted this song within the abstract idiom of Kurt Weill’s stage works. Melodies twist, rise, and fade over accompaniment that bears the hallmarks of Britten’s lean and fitfully thorny harmonic style. Costanzo and Moody delivered a radiant performance, tossing off the lines with zeal.

A selection of songs by Poulenc was just as enchanting. Costanzo’s voice in “Hôtel” from Banalités took on smoky tone and texture. The ensuing “Voyage à Paris” from the same set was by turns jovial and effervescent. “C,” a forlorn depiction of courtly love, was luminous, and Costanzo and Moody rendered the smooth, undulating waltz of “Les chemins de l’amour” with attractive ebb and flow. Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the duo’s encore, showed that a fine countertenor voice can communicate with the same full-bodied, bluesy swagger of a lyric soprano.

The Celebrity Series continues with violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Akira Eguchi in music by Leclair, Prokofiev, Wheeler, Kreisler, and Franck 8 p.m. November 16 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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