Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and pianist Bryan Wagorn in recital for the Harriman-Jewell series, Folly Theater. Credit: Andrew Schwartz (verography)
In his Kansas City debut, Anthony Roth Costanzo was as charming and likable a performer as one might hope, with breathtaking talent as one of the world’s greatest countertenors.
He and pianist Bryan Wagorn gave a captivating recital at the Folly Theater on Saturday night, presented by the Harriman-Jewell series. Costanzo was lively, smiling as he took the stage, hand to heart as he said “thank you” during the applause.
Briefly explaining the phenomenon and history of the countertenor voice at the opening of the show, he combines two works two hundred years apart that demonstrate this versatility in style and scope: Henry’s “One Charming Night” Purcell and “The Foggy, Foggy Dew” by Benjamin Britten. “The Britten included an acting moment that made the audience laugh a bit irrelevant to the subject of the song (those good old-fashioned folk songs … either about sex, or death, or in this both), but managed to set the tone for the evening, both as an introduction to the performer and to the atmosphere of excitement and discovery.
Costanzo has programmed two larger song sets, “Summer Nights” by Hector Berlioz and a selection of songs by Franz Liszt. Berlioz wrote poems by Théophile Gautier describing various episodes of love and mourning. Costanzo is set to perform the cycle with the New York Philharmonic in February, but I can’t imagine a larger setting could rival the intimacy and subtlety of this performance, especially in “Absence,” where the resonating steel from the piano echoed his voice.
The Liszt set of four was taken from Liszt’s extensive catalog, with Costanzo acknowledging Wagorn’s skill at the piano. Before the charming “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” (on all peaks it is peaceful), Costanzo told a powerful (if possible apocryphal) story of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe carving the poem in 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 mastery and reach, with a pianissimo tone that nonetheless surrounded the audience. The work explores the lonely angst of a half-man / half-wolf character from Welsh mythology, encapsulating the struggle many go through being forced to deny parts of their identity, instead of being adopted as both complex and complete.
Costanzo performed a set by Joel Thompson. The artists were presented by Bang on a Can for its live online marathon last February, and Thompson selected works by Harlem Renaissance poets for the commission: “Supplication” by Joseph Seaman Cotter Jr. and “Compensation” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although both were short (the pair are only around 4 minutes long), the text was tense and timely, with Thompson creating evocative and cohesive sound worlds.
Costanzo made his showbiz debut with Gershwin tunes and ended the program with a set by George and Ira Gershwin. With an exaggerated “Sam and Delilah” and a fun cabaret-style “I’ve Got Rhythm”, Costanzo replaced the deliciously delicate and sincere “The Man I Love”.
Costanzo makes no apologies for the opera’s ridiculousness, or the novelty of his voice, but leaned into its versatility, delivering a silly duet encore with himself playing both Susanna and Count Almaviva’s ” Le nozze di Figaro “, the audience lapping up the absurdity as he swirled between roles.
Refreshingly, Costanzo showed respect and understanding for his audience in that he neither assumed insider knowledge nor abbreviated his presentation – he simply explained why the works were important to him and brought them to life. offered as works for the enjoyment of the public. This approach was so successful, combined with exemplary emotional communication, that it turned out to be unnecessary to follow the text for non-English selections, even if you were not fluent in French, Italian or German.
Here, and throughout his career, Costanzo has made himself an excellent advocate for this new area of opera, which avoids elitist barriers in favor of connection and community.
Revised Saturday, December 18, 2021. For more information, visit anthonyrothcostanzo.com.