We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Bryan Wagorn, Nadine Sierra, and Anthony Roth Costanzo

We get warm fuzzy feelings when we witness the meteoric rise of artists we've noted and admired since their student years. Such was the case yesterday when The George London Foundation for Singers presented two of their winners from 2010 at The Morgan Library. This series is consistently wonderful and The Morgan Library space is just the right size for vocal recitals.

We had not even begun writing about the vocal arts when we first heard soprano Nadine Sierra and counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.  It was even before they won their prizes in 2010.  But we knew enough about singing to have recognized their respective gifts and to have predicted the major careers that they have earned.

Maestro Wagorn has played for the best in the business and was the perfect choice as collaborative pianist; he is unfailingly in tune with the singers and matches their moods and the feeling tone of the text and music.

If you read through to the end you will learn about the wildest craziest encore we have ever heard.  But let's begin at the beginning. Ms. Sierra, appearing like a Greek goddess, sang a pair of songs that Franz Schubert wrote in 1825 for a play with a very complicated Shakespearean plot, entitled Lacrimas.  Typical of Schubert they are lavish with melody and Ms. Sierra caressed every word in an expressive but unaffected manor. "Lied des Florio" was replete with sadness while "Lied der Delphine" was in a more cheerful vein.  Both were lovely.

Mr. Costanzo followed with three of Henri Duparc's jewels.  Mr. Wagorn's rippling arpeggios and Mr. Costanzo's superlative French diction contributed to their overall success.  He floats his high notes like mist in the moonlight and can spin out a final note until it is a silken thread.  His breath control is non pareil and allows him to achieve wide dynamic variety.  His word coloring is painterly.

"Chanson triste" achieved a hopeful mood behind the melancholy.  "L'invitation au voyage" brought us to foreign shores, with the final word "volupté" leaving us stunned. Never mind that we just heard it the day before; he made it fresh.  In the terrific "Phidylé" we heard an astonishing messa di voce, one that had us holding our breath.

Ms. Sierra absolutely commanded the stage in her selection of songs by Joaquin Turina and Mr. Wagorn matched her Iberian charm, note for note. "Cuando tan hermosa os miro" and "Si con mis deseos" are love songs while "Al val de Fuente Ovejuna" is a charming tale, sung with charm, about a shy maiden hiding from an importuning man.

The first part of the program ended splendidly with a duet from Händel's Rodelinda, "Io t'abraccio".  The text refers to the pain of parting and the two singers were indeed spatially separated. We lack words to describe the deliciousness of the harmony and the way Baroque technique was used to indicate sobbing. By the end, we ourselves were close to sobbing.

Mr. Costanzo opened the second half of the program with what he does best. Even those who don't quite "get" the counter-tenor fach would have been brought to their knees by "Rompo i lacci" from Handel's Flavio. The wild flights of fioritura presented no obstacle to this intrepid artist, a master of the Baroque style.  Händel knew how to write for the voice and his arias have many sections of various moods and tempi. The slow section could have broken hearts but the fury of revenge in the fast sections could make you weak in the knees.

Ms. Sierra began her aria "Arpa gentil" from Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims from offstage to the sound of a harp produced by Mr. Wagorn's delicate arpeggios on the piano. She has mastered the Bel Canto style and made her embellishments as meaningful as they were perfectly precise.

We even enjoyed her English in a quartet of songs by Ned Rorem.  Our favorites were the sweet "In a gondola" which describes two different types of kissing and "Song for a girl" in which a 14-year-old girl sings of her innocence and how she expects to become more devious as she gets older.  Ms. Sierra sang them truthfully and with deep feeling.

Five songs by Franz Liszt were performed by Mr. Costanzo.  Our favorite was the peaceful "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" but we must say we prefer our favorite counter-tenor in the more fiery operatic material.

The recital ended with a brilliant duet in Latin--two selections from Giovanni Batista Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in which the harmonies were a touch more dissonant than those of Händel and even more interesting.  The second feature that captured our attention was the fact that the two singers were singing different lines. It was nothing short of astonishing.

And now we get to the best part....the encores.  Ms. Sierra won everyone's hearts with "O, mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Only the most cold-hearted father could have resisted her importuning! This aria seems to have been written just for her!

Mr. Costanzo chose for his encore....drum roll please...."Summertime" from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In an engaging introduction, he told the audience that the biggest obstacle to becoming a counter-tenor was a psychological one and that his parents were both psychologists.  When the first song he wanted to sing as a child was "Summertime" they encouraged him. This story made us smile.  A lot.  And we'd have to say we have never heard that aria sung like that before. And likely never will again.

And now, the crazy wild encore you have been waiting to hear about...the two artists sang "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni--with Ms. Sierra singing the Don and Mr. Costanzo singing Zerlina.  Such gender bending is fun but it also forces us to look at gender roles and expectations in a fresh way.  We were not alone in having our funny bone tickled.

(c) meche kroop

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