By David Shengold
NEW YORK — In an era when several of New York’s most appropriate spaces for vocal recitals flout their mandate to present this exquisite art form, New Yorkers have to salute the commitment shown by the George London Foundation and the Morgan Library and Museum in presenting a yearly series of duo recitals with piano in the intimate Gilder Lehrman Hall. Initially, this series paired more experienced vocalists — some of them colleagues or students of the late Canadian-born, Hollywood-raised, Vienna-crowned bass-baritone star for whom the foundation is named — with up-and-coming-talents.
More recently, pairings tend to be of singers more equal in career status. That was the case on March 22 with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and soprano Nadine Sierra. The pair actually won London Foundation prizes together in 2010; performed Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice together for Palm Beach Opera the following year; and shared a house while performing a staged Pergolesi Stabat Mater at Glimmerglass 2013.
Their lyrical voices are of essentially similar texture and weight, a decided advantage in a bright hall with acoustics not always flattering to dramatic or spinto-sized voices. (Even Costanzo encountered some acoustic distortion when at full high-forte tilt in some of his otherwise elegant Duparc selections.) Sometimes these recitals involve — awkwardly — two pianists. Here, both artists worked with the splendid collaborative pianist Bryan Wagorn, a young Canadian with formidable stylistic range. If one can play Liszt’s song accompaniments flawlessly, one can surely play just about anything. Wagorn’s knack for taking the right approach to a wide array of music anchored the entire afternoon.
Sierra, always a promising talent, has grown markedly as an artist in the last few years. Even though she was announced as having something of a cold, her unusually highly placed lyric soprano — a fundamentally bright instrument with dark glints she can use for contrast and dramatic coloration — sounded in great shape. Opening with unhackneyed posthumous Schubert (“Lied des Florio,” “Lied der Delphine”), she showed crystalline purity and clear diction.
Turina’s settings of three poems by Félix Lope de Vega unveiled interpretive flair, a broad dynamic palette, and melismatic grace. If Corinna’s entrancing, arpeggiated aria from Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, properly begun offstage, entranced its listeners, her delivery of Rorem’s acrobatic Six Songs for High Voice surely amazed them — a real bravura vocal feat, though certain words could have been even more effectively deployed.
Of Costanzo’s five quietly fervent, fluidly vocalized Liszt settings, his readings of “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” and “Ihr Glocken von Marling” struck home especially by virtue of the superb timing and shaping of the phrases. On to Schubert next? Handel is one of the countertenor’s most natural fields of application: The composer’s operas have furnished his debuts at Glimmerglass, New York City Opera, the Met, San Francisco, and Glyndebourne. Here Costanzo showed his mastery of the Handelian idiom — breath control, runs, dynamic control, and expressive devices — in star-turn material.
He and Sierra first united voices in a seamless, memorable traversal of “Io t’abraccio,” the slow-burning duet that closes Rodelinda’s second act. Everything had been scrupulously pondered, down to the harmonic subtleties of the fine joint cadenzas — plus stance and facial expressions that created the sense of a dramatic performance. Despite his best efforts, even Wagorn couldn’t keep the modern piano from sounding foursquare compared to Handel’s entrancing orchestral original.
Costanzo began the recital’s second half rampaging effectively through the coloratura fireworks of “Rompo i lacci” from Flavio’s title character, with the contrasting section a model of tapered legato lines. Remarkably cogent readings of Pergolesi’s almost avian harmonics in the duets “Fac ut ardeat” and “Quando corpus” from Stabat Mater ended the printed program.
For encores, Sierra scored with a soaring yet genuinely pathos-tinged “O mio babbino caro.” Then Costanzo slyly honored his parents (in attendance) by singing — with some admirably judged jazz shadings and fine arcs of sound — the first song that attracted him as a child: no less than “Summertime.” A crowd roaring for more enjoyed an ebullient tribute to George London’s repertory: “La cì darem la mano,” initially with Sierra a forward Giovanni and Costanzo all shy as Zerlina. Trading off parts and lines as perhaps only long-time collaborators could, they brought it off delightfully, earning all three musicians onstage rhythmic applause.
A few cavils about this fine event’s presentation: The young Morgan official introducing it (semi-audibly) hadn’t bothered to master Costanzo and Wagorn’s last names. Is public speaking the most lost of civic graces? Lights were kept too low for perusing the program, which completely failed us as to textual attribution. “L’invitation au voyage” is not “translated by Charles Baudelaire”; he wrote it. And most poets — even for works by Goethe, Browning, and Dryden — received no credit whatsoever.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.