Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and pianist Bryan Wagorn in recital for Harriman-Jewell Series, Folly Theater. Credit: Andrew Schwartz (Veritography)
In his Kansas City debut, Anthony Roth Costanzo was as charming and personable a performer as one would hope to enjoy, with breathtaking skill as one of the world’s leading countertenors.
He and pianist Bryan Wagorn performed a captivating recital at the Folly Theater Saturday night, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series. Costanzo was buoyant, grinning as he strode onstage, hand to heart as he mouthed “thank you” during applause.
Briefly explaining the phenomenon and history of the countertenor voice as he opened the show, he paired two works two hundred years apart which demonstrated this versatility in style and range: Henry Purcell’s “One Charming Night” and Benjamin Britten’s “The Foggy, Foggy Dew.” The Britten included a moment of hammy acting that got the audience laughing a bit out of place for the subject of the song (those good old fashioned folk songs…either about sex or death, or in this case, both), but successfully set the tone for the evening, both as an introduction to the performer and to the atmosphere of excitement and discovery.
Costanzo programmed two larger song sets, Hector Berlioz’ “Les nuits d’été” and a selection of songs by Franz Liszt. Berlioz set poems by Théophile Gautier describing various episodes of love and grief. Costanzo is set to perform the cycle with the New York Philharmonic in February, but I can’t imagine that a more expansive setting will compete with the intimacy and subtlety of this performance, especially in “Absence,” when the resonating steel of the piano echoed his voice.
The Liszt set of four were pulled from Liszt’s extensive catalog, Costanzo acknowledging Wagorn’s skill on piano. Prior to the lovely “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” (Over all the peaks it is peaceful), Costanzo told a powerful (if possibly apocryphal) story of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe carving the poem into stone, but in the world of magic and mythology shared by Liszt and Goethe and Costanzo, why not? “Ihr Glocken von Marling” was also a work of pure delight.
They included a handful of works by American composers, two by living composers. In Gregory Spears’ “Fearsome This Night” he demonstrated his incredible control and range, with a pianissimo tone that nevertheless surrounded the audience. The work explores the lonely anguish of a half-man/half-wolf character from Welsh mythology, encapsulating the struggle many experience in being forced to deny parts of their identity, instead of embraced as both complex and complete.
Costanzo performed a set by Joel Thompson. The artists were introduced by Bang on a Can for its live online marathon last February, and Thompson choose works by Harlem Renaissance poets for the commission: “Supplication” by Joseph Seaman Cotter Jr. and “Compensation” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Though both were short (the pair together is only about 4 minutes long), the text was taut and timely, Thompson creating evocative, cohesive soundworlds.
Costanzo got his start in showbiz with Gershwin tunes and he finished off the program with a set from George and Ira Gershwin. Along with an exaggerated “Sam and Delilah” and a fun, cabaret-style “I’ve Got Rhythm,” Costanzo substituted “The Man I Love,” deliciously delicate and heartfelt.
Costanzo makes no excuses for opera’s ridiculousness, or the novelty of his voice, but leaned in to his versatility, offering a silly encore in duet with himself playing both Susanna and Count Almaviva from “Le nozze di Figaro,” the audience lapping up the absurdity as he twirled between roles.
Refreshingly, Costanzo displayed respect and understanding for his audience in that he neither assumed insider knowledge or dumbed down his presentation—he simply explained why the works were significant to him and offered them as works for the audience’s enjoyment. This approach was so successful, combine with exemplary emotional communication, that it proved unnecessary to follow along with the text for the non-English selections, even if you weren’t fluent in French, Italian, or German.
Here, and throughout his career, Costanzo makes a fine advocate for this new field of opera, which eschews elitist barriers in preference for connection and community.
Reviewed Saturday, December 18, 2021. For more information visit anthonyrothcostanzo.com.