On the page this looked rather a rag-bag sort of programme. Some early Mozart opera seria arias and songs, alongside two of Gluck’s best-known arias from Orfeo ed Euridice, welded together by some instrumental works representing both periods, by Chevalier de Sant-George and Rameau. But if, notionally, ‘opera’ was the binding thread, then in fact at the end of this recital one felt that Anthony Roth Costanzo’s sheer force of musical personality would be all that was needed to make the most fragmented hodgepodge seem harmoniously coherent. In fact, he could make a shopping list or nursery rhyme dramatic and exciting.
This was the first time I’d heard Costanzo in recital. As his opera performances have confirmed, his voice is powerful, precise and pure. The tone is very bright and has a slight edge at times – not displeasing, and often affecting. His vocal agility is superb, and his wide dynamic range is manipulated expertly and expressively. This was Costanzo’s debut at Wigmore Hall, and he was certainly glad to be there – grinning from ear to ear, a diminutive bundle of excitement that looked as if it might burst! And, his energy and joy were infectious: I’ve never seen musicians smile so much during a performance. Artistic director David Bates was positively beaming. The music glowed, fired up by Costanzo’s energy.
The vocal items were dominated and bookended by Mozart, beginning with ‘Già dagli occhi’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto. In this aria, Farnace, who has been chained to a rock by Mitridate and freed by Marzio, turns down the latter’s treacherous invitation for further betrayal and decides to throw in his lot with his father. After all the intrigues, in this aria Farnace displays new self-awareness, showing some honest and nobility at last. I described Iestyn Davies’ performance of this dramatic volte face in Tim Albery’s Garsington production this summer as mesmerizingly persuasive.
Costanzo certainly set out to make an impact, the opening word of the recitative, “Vadasi” (I must go), strikingly resonant, and there could be no doubting Farnace’s hatred of the Romans he rejects at the close, “io vi detest” enunciated with almost violent force. The long lines of the aria were silkily spun, warmed by some lovely woodwind playing, and Costanzo exploited his strength across a wide vocal range, including a grainy chest register. The intonation was a little wayward at the top occasionally, and I wasn’t convinced by the countertenor’s da capo ornaments or final trill. But, one sensed the strength of Farnace’s character and conviction.
The concert aria, ‘Ombra felice’, which evokes the separation of two lovers, was written in 1776 for the alto castrato Francesco Fortini for insertion in the second act of Michele Mortellari’s Arsace. The aria is notable for its shifting tempi and tense syncopations and Costanzo and La Nuova Musica certainly mined the dramatic ebbs and flows. The countertenor established a strong mood at the start, “Io ti lascio” (I must leave you) and conveyed the pained psyche of the protagonist with aplomb.
To be honest, in terms of their musical stature, we could have done without the two songs, originally for voice and piano, which Iain Farrington had arranged for orchestral accompaniment (and however expert the arrangement, the results were rather too heavy for these intimate songs). Costanzo’s French diction needs a bit of work, and the ariette, ‘Dans un bois solitaire’ (In a lonely wood), didn’t quite summon the required pastoral tranquillity, though it was expressively sung. It was written for Elisabeth Augusta Wendling, Mozart’s first Elettra (Idomeneo), and the female singer assumes a male persona, in the final stanza languishing and burning ‘at Sylvia’s feet’, so it was a bit complicated gender-voice wise! But, Costanzo exploited the form of the song – a modified da capo – and in the penultimate stanza brought a Sturm und Drang intensity to the modulations and vocal rise which peaks on the word “coeur”, before returning to the opening material.
Initially, ‘Abendempfindung’ (Evening thoughts) seemed to me to require a calmer presence, less vivid vocal articulation – just a meltingly clean tone and line. But, Costanzo did slip into a simpler, more gentle mode and the ending of the song was beautifully delicate, the image of a tear of sadness becoming ‘the fairest pearl of all’ (Dann die schönste Perle sein) preciously rendered.
Later we had ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti’ (I see myself in front of my beloved) from Ascanio in Alba in which Ascanio, standing before his beloved, is unable to speak to her because of Venus’s edict of silence. His desperate pleading to be released from his torment was characterised by striking changes of register and tone. We returned to Mitridate at the close for ‘Venga pur’, which presents Farnace’s initial decision to defect to the Roman camp. Super playing from the horns (Richard Bayliss, Joseph Walters), bassoon (Catriona McDermid) and oboes (Leo Duarte, Nicola Barbagli) helped Costanzo convey the bitter, biting fury that Farnace feels for his father, with strong rhythms in the bass adding to the vehemence.
The other two vocal items came from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – and to some extent they made the early Mozart arias seem more conventional than they really are. Costanzo built the intensity of ‘Che puro ciel!’ with fine skill and judgement, aided by some lovely playing from Duarte. The recitative preceding ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ was highly dramatic, the aria itself a masterclass in melodic lyricism, with some wonderfully well-placed messa di voce – “Io so pure il tuo fedel” (I am your true love still) – and an ethereal pianissimo as Orfeo lamented that there would be no help or hope from either the world or the gods.
Vivid accompanists in the arias and recitatives, La Nuova Musica shone in the spotlight in the interwoven instrumental items. Chevalier de Saint-George’s Symphony in D Op.11 No.2, which served as an overture to his only extant opera, L’amant anonyme, presented contrasts of grace and robustness, strings and woodwind well-balanced, expressively moving between the light and shadow. The concluding Presto had real punch, the dynamics as theatrical as the bracing pizzicatos. Gluck’s suite from Don Juan showcased the precision of the ensemble and the spot-on intonation. The Andante lilted soothingly, while the Allegro non troppo was excited and intense, horns braying, oboes lifted aloft like trumpets. The gentle elegance of the ‘Entrée de Polymnie’ from Rameau’s Les Boréades was complemented by vivid rhetoric in an assemblage of numbers from Platée. David Bates’s animation – he frequently leapt to his feet, and when playing the harpsichord seemed to be driving things forward with his whole body – fired the ensemble. The gruffness of the ‘Rigaudons’ was wry; the sense of mystery at the opening of ‘Orage’ intriguing. More terrific playing from McDermid in the latter too.
If I had one quibble it was that I thought that occasionally Costanzo ‘cheated’, slipping into a natural baritone register rather then using his falsetto chest voice. But, if this was the case, he made more than a virtue of it, offering an encore (from Così) in which he duetted with himself, switching between baritone and soprano, twisting this way and that, with ever greater manic intensity – and superb control. Stunning theatre which encapsulated the joyful essence of the evening.
Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor), La Nuova Musica, David Bates (artistic director, harpsichord)
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges – Symphony in D Op.11 No.2; Mozart – ‘Vadasi … Già dagli occhi’ (Mitridate, re di Ponto K87), ‘Ombra felice … Io ti lascio’ K255; Rameau – Entrée de Polymnie (Les Boréades); Mozart – ‘Dans un bois solitaire’ K308 (arranged by Iain Farrington), ‘Abendempfindung’ K523 (arranged by Iain Farrington); Rameau – Suite (Platée); Gluck – ‘Che puro ciel’, ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ (Orfeo ed Euridice), Suite from Don Juan; Mozart – ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti’ (Ascanio in Alba K111), ‘Venga pur minacci’ (Mitridate, re di Ponto K87)
Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 15th November 2023.
ABOVE: Anthony Roth Costanzo (photo courtesy of Opus 3 Artists)