Countertenor’s Recital ‘Don’t Look Back’ Looks Well Beyond The Box


Anthony Roth Costanzo’s “Don’t Look Back” recital was tied to several spring projects anchored in the Orpheus myth. (Morgan Library poster fragment)

NEW YORK — Piano-vocal recitals are a concert staple, especially at this time of year when legions of voice students perform graduation programs designed to display their musical versatility. When the vocalist is a countertenor, one sits up a bit. When that countertenor is Anthony Roth Costanzo, the interest level perks up considerably, because when this artist undertakes a project, you never know what will happen. His May 7 performance at the Morgan Library and Museum, Don’t Look Back, went beyond the formula by adding narration and a visual interest, and linked to his larger project, “MYTHS,” which tied together his several spring projects, anchored by his debut in the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met.

Costanzo seems to have his finger in every musical pie. In opera, beyond the Handel and other baroque roles beloved of countertenors, he has performed in new operas by the likes of Kaija Saariaho, Matthew Aucoin, Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, John Adams, Gregory Spears, Jake Heggie, and Philip Glass, bravely baring all for Glass’ Satyagraha at the Met and in London. For Opera Philadelphia in 2018 he created a hybrid spectacle combining the music of Glass and Handel with dance, couture, and video; the project also yielded an ARC CD (at left). During pandemic lockdown he organized and produced two summers’ worth of mobile city-wide pop-up concerts with the New York Philharmonic. And let’s not forget his cabaret partnership with Justin Vivian Bond, Only an Octave Apart, which has toured internationally and has also produced a recording. This is but a sampling of his ceaseless activity.

Costanzo’s broad and adventurous musical tastes along with his demonstrated organizational talents made his recent appointment as general director and president of Opera Philadelphia a completely logical move. But on this evening the most prominent trait was his gift as a warm and effective communicator. At the beginning of the concert he bounded out into the front of the auditorium below the stage, microphone in hand, and greeted the audience with a cheery, “Hello, everybody!” Bubbling with enthusiasm, he gave a short overview of the program, providing context for the repertoire as well as an idea of how countertenors — the “rock stars” of their time — fit into the musical culture of the late 18th century.

He had designed the program around works that appeared in manuscript or early print editions in the collection of the Morgan Library, and described the fascination of seeing how a composer’s actual handwriting could suggest ease or struggle in the compositional process. Images from these early scores were incorporated into video animations by filmmaker Picky Talarico, projected onto a translucent screen at the front of the stage. Costanzo and his able pianist Bryan Wagorn performed behind the screen, but in the 247-seat hall the sound never sounded muffled.

Images from these early scores were incorporated into video animations by filmmaker Picky Talarico and projected onto a translucent screen at the front of the stage.

Three arias from Handel operas — “Verdi allori” from Orlando, “Or la tromba” from Rinaldo, and “O rendetemi il mio bene” from Amadigi di Gaula — are familiar Costanzo repertoire and displayed his strengths at baroque singing. Sweet but robust tone, command of line, agile coloratura, well-blended registers, imaginative ornamentation, and, above all, expressiveness were all on display. The opening video showed an etching: a title page decorated with cherubs arranged in a wreath, with the countertenor, standing behind the screen, visible where the printed title would have been. As he sang a gently rocking ode to a tree, the cherubs swayed their instruments in time to the music. The two faster virtuoso arias were illustrated with manuscript snippets scrolling in vertical ribbons; the effect was generic but emphasized the energy of the music.

The opening video showed Costanzo performing among cherubs depicted in manuscripts and early print editions in the Morgan Library collection.

The Orfeo ed Euridice excerpts were the musical centerpiece; the recital’s title, Don’t Look Back, is a warning to Orpheus not to look back at his bride as he led her out of Hades. Orpheus, of course, couldn’t resist her pleas, and lost Euridice a second time. Costanzo emphasized his wonder at a tale about a singer whose voice had the power to challenge the implacable denizens of the underworld. On the screen we watched floating images of an early edition of the opera, the notes dissolving on the page, while Costanzo and Wagorn performed three extended excerpts, including the famous “Che farò.” This piano-vocal reduction of Gluck’s colorful score could only provide a sketch, but from the vocal evidence Costanzo will have a success with this assumption of his “dream role.”

Two Mozart songs, in French and in German, seemed a bit out of place, both stylistically and vocally. Costanzo’s comfort zone is in Italian- and English-language repertoire, and the shifts in language didn’t quite settle into his voice. It’s also likely that fatigue from a day of rehearsal didn’t allow him to scale down for the necessary subtlety of phrasing. But the two songs — the light and charming early “Dans un bois solitaire” and the more contemplative “Abendempfindung” from 1787 — are lovely neglected gems, which presage Schubert’s advances with lieder.

Costanza remained with Mozart for an encore, the short duet “Crudel! perchè finora” from the one-man Marriage of Figaro he will perform in August. Costanzo sang both the Susanna part (in countertenor voice) and the Count (in chest voice), pivoting back and forth across the stage to switch characters.

Orfeo ed Euridice, a production directed by choreographer Mark Morris, opens at the Met on May 16 for six performances. For information and tickets, go here.