~ Author: Oberon
A fascinating recording by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has been released by Decca Gold. It's entitled Glass Handel, and listening to my advance copy for the first time was truly a revelation.
Across the great gap of time that separates them, Handel and Glass share a defining sense of rhythmic impulse, a keen knack for the bending of harmonics, and a mastery of melodic invention that alternately moves or excites us. Uniting with Les Violins du Roy under the direction of Jonathan Cohen, Anthony Roth Costanzo magnificently enshrines the similarities and contrasts of the vocal music of the two composers.
My first play-thru of Glass Handel gave me the feeling of being caught in a wondrous time-warp from which I felt no desire to escape. Experiencing music involves the ear, the mind, and - hopefully - the soul. But for me, the telltale signs of a truly thrilling encounter - be it with music, art, nature, or a kindred spirit - emanate from the spine: those delicious tingling sensations that tell us the very core of our being has been reached. Listening to Glass Handel, my spine was thoroughly engaged throughout; back in the day, we would have called this a cosmic experience.
Commencing with the propulsive drive of the introduction to 'The Encounter' from Philip Glass's 1000 Airplanes On The Roof, an immediate sense of exhilaration wells up. Then the wordless power and allure of the Costanzo voice seizes the imagination, much as the legendary voices of Handel's day were said to enthrall listeners. The singer plays with the music - a touch of the sensuous here and there - as he covers its vast range. The depth of sound from Les Violins du Roy has its own kind of sex appeal. Bubbling woodwinds and a relentless rhythm carry us along; the singer at one point introduces a laugh-like motif.
The sheer drama of the orchestral introduction to 'Pena Tiranna' from Handel's Amadigi Di Gaula immediately conjures up another universe. In this aria, which seems melodically related to the composer's much-beloved 'Lascia Ch'io Pianga', Mr. Costanzo's textual nuances, his sumptuous colour-palette, and his masterful manipulation of the degrees of straight-tone and pliant vibrato are enthralling to hear. Ranging from full-throated passion to exquisite softness, and with a real sense of thoughtfulness, the voice is perfectly blended with the plum-coloured sound of the bassoon.
Glass's 'Liquid Days' has the classic A-B-A format of a Baroque aria. After a slow start, the music begins to pulse as voice and flute converse. A sense of urgency rises, subsides, and recurs. Swirling motifs seem to carry us to an ending, but then there's a da capo wherein Mr. Costanzo does some truly affecting singing. The piece ends in mid-air.
'Rompo I Lacci' from Handel's Flavio is a flourishing Baroque display aria with a dynamic introduction leading to passages of florid coloratura which Mr. Costanzo dispatches fluently. His fiery passion is quelled in a central section of reflective despair; lovely piano singing here culminates in a crescendo which bursts into scorching dramatic fire for the da capo.
To say that Mr. Costanzo's rendering of the iconic Handel lament 'Lascia Ch'io Pianga' from Rinaldo is the highlight of the collection is high praise indeed. He commences with a slight feeling of hesitancy, singing the familiar melody to ravishing effect, with a gorgeous diminuendo that leads directly into the repeat of the theme. Miraculous piano singing, with straight tone so hushed and mystical.
'In The Arc Of Your Mallet' from Monsters Of Grace, a Philip Glass/Robert Wilson collaboration, is the surprise, the rarity, the secret treasure of this collection. It's a Costanzo tour de force, as he launches into the setting of Jalaluddin Rumi's incandescent poem:
"Don't go anywhere without me.
Let nothing happen in the sky apart from me,
or on the ground, in this world or that world,
without my being in its happening.
Vision, see nothing I don't see.
Language, say nothing.
The way the night knows itself with the moon,
be that with me. Be the rose
nearest to the thorn that I am.
I want to feel myself in you when you taste food,
in the arc of your mallet when you work,
when you visit friends, when you go
up on the roof by yourself at night.
There's nothing worse than to walk out along the street
without you. I don't know where I'm going.
You're the road, and the knower of roads,
more than maps, more than love."
Over pulsating winds, slices of melody flare up as the poetry alternates with stretches of vocalise. The seductive beauty of Mr. Costanzo's tone as this 'aria' draws to its fading finish gave me a fresh set of spinal shimmers. Apparently Monsters of Grace did not find favor at the time of its 1999 performances, and it seems not to have been performed since. It might be worthy of re-examination. The Rumi poem, from the 13th century, seems madly contemporary.
'Vivi, Tiranno!' from Handel's Rodelinda is a virtuoso showpiece made famous in my day by the great Marilyn Horne; it's Handel at his most exciting.
I have saved you.
Now kill me, ingrate, unleash your rage!
I wished to save you only to show you
That my heart is greater than my fate."
Mr. Costanzo revels in un-spooling long lines of coloratura, alive with a keen dramatic edge that's full of bite and spite. In the da capo, he cunningly takes a pause between "Vivi..." and "...tiranno": a pregnant pause if ever there was one. Thereafter, Mr. Costanzo sails through the aria's final flourishes with élan.
A recitative and aria from Handel's Tolomeo, Re d'Egitto follows. Commencing with a dramatic introduction, 'Inumano Fratel' finds Tolomeo drinking what he believes to be poison. Mr. Costanzo here displays his incredible control with ravishing, hushed singing. In the ensuing aria, 'Stille Amare', Tolomeo senses the "bitter drops" bringing on his demise. With haunting legato and other-worldly sustained tones, the singer draws us into the realm of death.
'How All Living Things Breathe' from Glass's The Fall Of The House Of Usher has the feel of an instrumental work with vocal interludes. Commencing with harp arpeggios, the bassoon takes over and then the voice enters in ecstatic mode. Cushioning strings and evocative harmonies sustain the atmosphere.
Do familiar arias breed contempt? 'Ombra Mai Fu' from Serse might be regarded as Handel's "greatest hit", and for me, it's a great pleasure to hear Mr. Costanzo's rendering, with its exquisite opening note. I sometimes wonder if people who know this piece as 'Handel's Largo' - often played at weddings or funerals - realize that it's about a shade tree.
It's to Glass that the counter-tenor allots the disc's finale: 'Hymn To The Sun' from Akhnaten. Rising bassoon scales invigorate the prelude, with oboe, flute, and strings joining. The voice enters magically, hailing the sun and enumerating the wonders of nature. The longest of the tracks, it gives a pageant-like air to the conclusion of this impressive, intriguing collection.
Concurrent with the release of the album, Mr. Costanzo takes Glass Handel on the road, starting at Opera Philadelphia and then with National Sawdust at St. John the Divine in New York City. He speaks of this production here.
Listening to Glass Handel put me in mind of my memorable experience of hearing Mr. Costanzo sing live, back in 2012, in the intimate setting of the Players Club, performing Baroque arias while New York City Ballet principal Jared Angle danced. Read about that evening here.
Rumor hath it that Mr. Costanzo will be returning to The Met in Glass's Akhnaten in the near future.