IN: Reviews

Don’t Look Back, but Please Look Through

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Standing on Harvard’s Paine Hall Stage on Thursday night, Anthony Roth Costanzo looked to the commemorative frieze for Handel’s name, saying, “I think he’s up here somewhere.” Indeed, the program’s three composers’ names, Handel, Gluck, and Mozart, each molded above the stage, imposed their charms on us throughout the recital. Costanzo stood behind another layer of visuals: a semi-transparent scrim that reflected artistically rendered videos of the score’s original manuscripts. Costanzo’s virtuosity as a countertenor and crafter of stage images resulted in a recital that was both riveting and informative.

In his world premiere of the show (also to be staged at the Morgan library in NYC and Opera Omaha), videos by Picky Talarico and still images by Matthew Placek of the relevant urtexts swirled around the singer. In his pre-concert remarks, Costanzo said that the idea for the concert came about when he signed on to do Orfeo at the Met and learned that the Morgan library had many of Gluck’s manuscripts. His goal for this concert was to “look at the gesture of writing,” recognizing that the “friction between the past and present is like the friction of a pen.” 

The concert’s program delved into Handel, Gluck, and Mozart, each introduced by Costanzo in conversation with his former opera teacher Carolyn Abbate before each section of the concert. This commentary let Costanzo show off his deep knowledge of the art form and his charming stage presence. The stories told did not feel indulgent, but all related to the music and revealed his musical analysis behind his interpretive choices. 

As he sang the first set of three pieces by Handel, Costanzo was already in excellent voice. Costanzo was lyrical, never straining, with beautiful trills and remarkably clear enunciation in the first and third pieces. In the second piece, “Or la tromba” from Rinaldo, the excellent pianist Douglas Sumi echoed the vocal lines with a remarkable dynamic control, and phrases that pulled across from piano to forte and from bass to treble clef. His added cadenza at the end of the piece was breathtaking, with precise execution and nimble handling of the phrase. Handel’s many repetitions let Costanzo attempt to “go further into the [character’s] psyche,” and by this reviewer’s estimation, he succeeded. 

The second set featured three arias from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (which Costanzo will also perform, as Orfeo, at the Metropolitan Opera from May 16 to June 8). In this set, Costanzo’s voice took on another color entirely. Faced with the unrelentingly major Orfeo, Costanzo said, “as an interpreter, I impose my modern-day sorrow on Gluck’s resistance.” His realization unlocked Gluck’s despondency by imposing his own emotion without changing a note of the score. This set reached the night’s highpoint and the projected scrim worked most effectively. As “Che puro ciel” opened, a score rose up on the scrim and turned into watercolors fading from the screen. Later, in ‘Che faro senza Euridice,” as Costanzo called out for Euridice, a blank score was projected on the whole scrim and Costanzo. The empty staff visually underscored the loss of music through the loss of Euridice. Costanzo’s voice floated, while his stage manner revealed him as a great singing-actor. 

Costanzo sustained a strong voice with a clear tone and a careful spot-on intonation appropriate to classical style in the closing pair of Mozart songs. In the comic encore, Costanzo played both roles in the duet “Crudel, perché finora” from The Marriage of Figaro while twirling back and forth across the stage, resulting in (intentional) laughter which morphed into a standing ovation. This encore, performed in front of the scrim, did not include any visuals and was remarkably impactful. The visuals, at best in the Gluck, added an interesting sidenote; at worst, the waggling cherubs in the Handel were pleasantly distracting. 

This Grammy-winning singer stands at the top of his game. He tailored his vocal style to each of the three composers: a trumpet-esque Handel took ownership of the form, a lyrical Gluck pushed against the restraints of the form, and an utterly comic Mozart let his hair down. Dash to the Met for Costanzo’s run as Orfeo. 

Jared Hackworth is an English graduate student at Boston College and a proud choral musician in the Back Bay Chorale. He studies the interconnections between cities, the arts, and humanities, and works with The School of The New York Times.

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