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Opera Philadelphia

In Review Glass Handel hdl 918
The world premiere production Glass/Handel, with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and dancer Patricia Delgado (foreground), at The Barnes Foundation
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

THE FOURTH OPENING of Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival was Glass/Handel, a unique spectacle for which magnetic countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo provided both accomplished vocal muscle and aesthetic savvy as a producer. On September 23, following a single preview the night before, an enthusiastic crowd filled the Barnes Foundation’s elongated lobby. The image-rich, musically first-rate show proved a triumph of organization and—for want of a better term—high-level artistic networking and collaboration. This was a starry, multimedia performance piece—a festive, thought-provoking party for ARC, Costanzo’s first solo CD on Decca, which features the countertenor singing Glass and Handel arias. 

Essentially, this party had four “stations”—one for dancers; one for the esteemed painter George Condo; one for Costanzo, versatile conductor Corrado Rovaris and his players (thirty-four for Glass and twenty for Handel, including ace theorboist Richard Stone); and one for showcasing the high-octane music videos some remarkable collaborators produced in connection with ARC and with this event. Dozens of patron-movers transported most of the audience, still in their seats, around the hall, so they got different perspectives on the action. (This furnished a spectacle of its own, with the ambiguously amusing sight of colleagues and acquaintances being hauled away seated in little carts.) Since this Wagnerian-sized reviewer chose to remain untransported—except metaphorically, by the artistry of Costanzo and Rovaris’s band and the high quality of the music—I couldn’t see the videos, though I later screened some online.

The show was fascinating. Condo, working in a lightbox, astonishingly created in real time a veritable skein of black and white Costanzo images riffing off the Picassoeque image of the singer he crafted for the new CD’s album cover. In David Hallberg, Patricia Delgado and Ricky Ubeda, the program boasted three superb dancers of very different physicalities. For the most part, they were relegated to the extreme southern end of the playing space, so I couldn’t presume fairly to evaluate Justin Peck’s choreography. During Costanzo’s final Handelian number—one of his chevaux de bataille, the exquisite “Pena tiranna” from Amadigi— multi-person drama broke out when Delgado joined him in an embrace at center stage and became the object of his adoration. 

Brandon Stirling Baker lit the space compellingly, coordinating hues with the palette offered in the bold costume designs by Raf Simons for Calvin Klein—which included outfits for the valiant patron-movers (highly diverse, save that all were fit and personable), the dancers, Rovaris and the band. Costanzo began the performance working a remarkable bulky red garment that evoked both Jessye Norman’s “Marseillaise” attire and his own Michelin Man-like costume as Prince Go-Go in Doug Fitch’s Grand Macabre. First, the elegant pink gloves came off, at a suitable musical moment. Later, the singer loosened (and lost) the red dress, revealing a dazzling electric-blue shift with a GLASS/HANDEL logo. That gave way to a simpler shirt with a black-and-white pattern referencing and complementing Condo’s work.

The juxtaposition of the Baroque and minimalist masters—a hallmark of Costanzo’s career, as well as of his solo CD—seemed fully justified, the elements of repetition with decorative variants knitting the program together and the linguistic contrast intensified by the countertenor’s keen, expressive diction. Always a master of legato and on top of demanding coloratura, he brought to bear—in Handel’s repeated A sections—elaborate but apt cadenzas and emotion-heightening ornamentation. (In Almirena’s lament, the repeat found him seemingly on the brink of tears.) Costanzo made his initial mark in Handel’s “lover” roles, but he has recently tackled Giulio Cesare. In this setting, his voice showed fuller scope in lower-register effects and—through intelligent dynamic layering and sagely applied accenti—brought the needed heroic quality to the warrior Bertarido‘s dazzling “Vivi, tiranno.” The varied and well-chosen Glass selections—only one repurposed for his voice category from an opera, 1987’s Fall of the House of Usher—flourished thanks to Costanzo’s musicianship, variety of attack and ability to produce both instrumental tone and highly inflected verbal nuance. The evening ended with a real bang, the exuberant “The Encounter” from 1988’s 1000 Airplanes on the Roof.  

One doesn’t usually get to praise a stage manager in a review, but Betsy Ayer deserves recognition for keeping all the disparate pieces of this four-ring event on track. Versions of Costanzo’s curatorial juggernaut—varied by differing spaces and availability of personnel—will alight at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and other venues this season.  The linked-in CD and those ambitious music videos are out in the world. One hopes the joyous hoopla and questing innovation will serve to introduce the extraordinary Handel and Glass music—plus the nonpareil interpreter at the spectacle’s center—to new audiences.  —David Shengold 

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