VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): A te, o cara – Stephen Costello sings bel canto — Stephen Costello, tenor; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor [Recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania, 14 – 19 May 2017; Delos DE 3541; 1 CD, 49:57; Available from Delos, Naxos Direct, and major music retailers]
The bitterest complaint uttered by many disenfranchised opera lovers is that the first two decades of the Twenty-First Century have produced no true heirs to the traditions perpetuated by the great singers of the past. It may be true that the continued vitality of opera depends upon the discovery of Flagstads, Bergonzis, and Siepis, but it is particularly regrettable that the cacophony of disapprobation for the present state of singing often distracts aficionados from appreciating the efforts of earnest artists with voices of quality. No less important than singers being properly trained in the art of nurturing, projecting, and maintaining their instruments is audiences being adequately conditioned to listen with respect. At its core, the survival of opera has always depended upon its strongest advocates ignoring what they are told to think and listening with both their ears and their hearts. The sounds that emerge from tenor Stephen Costello’s Delos recording A te, o cara provide bel canto lovers’ ears with copious reasons to rejoice, but it is heart—the hearts of the characters whose music is sung, the heart of the singer bringing them to life, and the reactions of the listener’s heart to these performances—that makes this disc one to be celebrated as an important artist’s homage to the art that uplifts him.
The Philadelphia-born Costello’s talent was acknowledged on a deservedly grand scale with the 2009 Richard Tucker Award, the Nobel Prize of young American singers, and his career has taken him in the subsequent decade to many of opera’s most venerated venues. Having created the rôle of Greenhorn—Melville’s Ishmael—in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick and appeared alongside a number of today’s preeminent singers, he has enjoyed fruitful collaborations with musicians who complement his sensibilities, among whom conductor Constantine Orbelian and the instrumentalists of Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra must now be included. Conducting broad arrays of voices and repertoire, Orbelian has affirmed his affinity for spotlighting his colleagues’ strengths on critically-lauded recordings.
Orbelian paces the performances on A te, o cara with equal concerns for supporting the singer and preserving the natural contours of the music. None of the arias on the disc is an orchestral showpiece, and Orbelian rightly guides the listener’s attention to the voice. The Kaunas musicians’ playing sometimes lacks the polish heard in performances by major German and Austrian orchestras, but their vigor is preferable to antiseptic precision. Performances of arias out of context can sometimes seem perfunctory, and there are transitions on A te, o cara that seem slightly abrupt, as though Costello and his colleagues were thinking in the complete paragraphs of full scenes rather than the individual sentences of arias. Above all, however, this is a disc that celebrates the joy and catharsis of singing, and the musicians unite their gifts in performances that captivatingly impart those qualities to the listener.
Costello made his rôle début as the naïve Tyrolean Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment with San Diego Opera in 2013, expanding his bel canto credentials with a gamble that paid richly musical dividends. Possessing a timbre more robust than the sounds wielded by the sort of tenore di grazia often heard in this rôle, Costello here sings with an appealing lightness but is also wholly true to his voice’s natural amplitude. He dispatches the cavatine ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ with quicksilver articulation of its rhythms and clear, unaffected diction. Few numbers in opera are more adored by audiences—and frequently sung badly—than the cabaletta ‘Pour mon âme quel destin.’ Costello’s vocalism discloses no difficulties in his ascents to either the eight written top Cs or the traditionally-interpolated ninth repetition of the tone that concludes the piece, but showmanship never supersedes his connection with the sentiments of the text.
In San Diego, the Marquise de Berkenfield from whose protective custody Costello’s Tonio sought to retrieve Marie was portrayed by the redoubtable Ewa Podleś, but not even as domineering a guardian as Podleś’s Marquise could disregard this Tonio’s ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ handsomely sung in California and delivered with extraordinary beauty and passion on A te, o cara. Phrasing with the finesse of a poet extemporaneously finding words to convey what his soul longs to say and eschewing the interpolated top C♯ gracelessly howled in this music by some singers, Costello confirms that Donizetti’s music as written is far more effective than variations on it. Rather than granting him Marie’s hand, many a Marquise might herself fall in love with the singer of such a heartfelt plea!
First performed in Paris in 1838, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal is one of Donizetti’s most innovative but least-familiar scores. Though espoused by a few enterprising singers, conductors, and opera companies, the work’s Italian incarnation, Don Sebastiano, re di Portogallo, has fared little better. A popular number on tenors’ recorded recitals since it was committed to 78-rpm disc by Enrico Caruso on 10 January 1908, Sebastiano’s romanza ‘Deserto in terra, che più m’avanza’ (originally ‘Seul sur la terre, en vain j’espère’) ends the opera’s second act with an outpouring of despair. The defeated king has escaped death only by a loyal lieutenant having assumed his identity and the woman he loves consenting to marry another man, and the character’s emotions galvanize Costello’s singing. He follows Alfredo Kraus’s and Pavarotti’s example by substituting an A♭ for the first of the written top Cs, but the subsequent top Cs and D♭ ring out dazzlingly. Here, too, it is the expressivity of the tenor’s performance that enchants.
The lovesick Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore is one of Costello’s best rôles, one in which the natural plangency of his timbre lends his characterization endearing sincerity. Whereas Pavarotti’s much-loved Nemorino was a charismatic lady’s man who wore his heart on his sleeve, the Nemorino enlivened by Costello is a shy, pensive lad whose awakening to the joys and pains of true love is deeply touching. The wide-eyed awe with which the younger tenor sings the Act One cavatina ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara’ is invigorating, the excitement of extolling the virtues of Nemorino’s beloved propelling his navigation of the vocal line. Aided by Orbelian’s well-chosen tempo, Costello then sings the romanza from Act Two, ‘Una furtiva lagrima,’ sublimely. Hearing it sung by voices as unsuited to this music as a featherweight tenorino is to singing Wagner’s Siegfried, it is easy to forget how affectingly lovely the piece can be. Costello’s performance is a welcome reminder of the music’s expressive potential, and the tonal beauty and unexaggerated pathos of his singing recall the similarly-interpreted Nemorino of Cesare Valletti. Depicting another amorous young man, an obvious temperamental relative of Nemorino and another rôle in which Valletti excelled, Costello’s performance of ‘Sogno soave e casto,’ the cantabile from Ernesto’s duet with the title character from Act One of Don Pasquale, radiates the essence of youthful romantic ardor.
A highlight of Costello’s recent engagements was his interpretation of Fernand in Gran Teatre del Liceu’s production of the La favorite, still rarely performed in the original French guise premièred in Paris in 1840. As in the selection from Dom Sébastien, Costello sings Fernand’s scene from Act Four of La favorite in its more widely-used Italian translation. He enunciates the recitative ‘Favorita del re! qual negro abisso’ with anguish befitting a man who has discovered that his betrothed is another man’s mistress, but the distress of Fernand’s predicament never distorts the integrity of Costello’s shaping of the vocal line. His breath control makes his account of ‘Spirto gentil’ competitive with the best on disc, the fervor of his singing bringing Giuseppe di Stefano’s famed 1949 Mexico City performance to mind.
Costello’s portrayal of Riccardo Percy—history’s Henry Percy, the sixth Earl of Northumberland—in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena has been applauded in Dallas, New York, and Vienna, and his stylish, searing singing of Percy’s Act Two aria ‘Vivi tu, te ne scongiuro’ on this disc reveals how acutely he identifies with the part. On stage, his Percy has exhibited surprising modernity, the plight of the honorable lover ensnared by political maneuvering resonating as powerfully with listeners now as when Anna Bolena was first heard in 1830. The verve of Costello’s reading of the cabaletta ‘Nel veder la tua costanza’ is effortlessly sustained up to his pulse-quickening top Cs and D. In both the aria and the cabaletta, the recorded sound obscures the singer’s handling of chromatic passages like the B♭–B♮–C progressions that preface resolutions of phrases: the commendable accuracy of his intonation elsewhere suggests that minimally-altered microphone placement might have engendered increased clarity.
It was as Arturo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that Costello made his Metropolitan Opera début on 24 September 2007. A month later, on 25 October, he enthralled the New York audience with his first MET portrayal of Edgardo. In the years between the world première of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835 and the Twentieth-Century revival of interest in bel canto, performances of the opera often ended with the heroine’s mad scene, denying audiences the pleasure of hearing some of Donizetti’s most exquisitely-written music for the tenor voice. The gravitas of the tragedy that has befallen Edgardo pulls at this tenor’s voice as he utters ‘Tombe degli avi miei,’ but the voice soars above the orchestra. Among so much stirring singing, his performance of ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ is perhaps Costello’s finest achievement on A te, o cara. Rising to a gleaming, easy top B, Edgardo’s desperation courses through his voice, the character bursting to life in a few minutes of emotive, evocative singing.
The disc’s title is borrowed from the text of the aria with which Arturo makes his entrance in Act One of Bellini’s I puritani, ‘A te, o cara, amor talora.’ This music epitomizes bel canto, and many tenors with voices completely wrong for Arturo—Franco Corelli, for instance—have recorded ‘A te, o cara.’ Costello’s voice is of course nothing like Corelli’s, but the solid, sonorous top C♯ that he deploys in his performance of ‘A te, o cara’ is by no means unworthy of comparison with his predecessor’s much-cherished top notes. Few tenors past or present have offered listeners a performance of this aria that more deserves to be described as bel cantothan Costello’s, which exults in Bellini’s distinctive cantilene.
Whilst still a student at his native city’s Academy of Vocal Arts, Costello was an acclaimed Duca di Mantova in Verdi’s Rigoletto, his singing of the rôle in AVA performances in metropolitan Philadelphia identifying him as a Verdian of tremendous promise. As his career has advanced, the Duca has continued to be a cornerstone of his repertoire, serving as his début rôle with Houston Grand Opera and the vehicle for success in the MET’s Las Vegas-set production. He has been forthright in sharing his misgivings about the Duca’s philandering nature, but hearing the immediacy with which he sings ‘Ella mi fu rapita,’ the recitative that opens the scene that launches Rigoletto’s second act, annihilates any doubt about Costello’s fondness for Verdi’s music. In the aria ‘Parmi veder le lagrime,’ a kinder facet of the Duca’s persona is momentarily glimpsed as he sings of his concern for Gilda, and this Duca heightens the significance of this episode of civility by voicing it with unmistakable conviction. The potency of his dramatic accents notwithstanding, the subtitle of this disc is ‘Stephen Costello sings bel canto,’ and his performance of the Duca’s music manifests that designation.
The sole disappointment of A te, o cara is its duration, which at less than fifty minutes is brief even by the standards of the LP era. Perhaps there is an elucidation of the disc’s brevity to be gleaned from the dedication that it bears, which merits being quoted.
The love of a friend can have a powerful impact on one’s life. This album is for you, Dima. Without you, none of this would have been possible. You are still as present in the world today as when you walked among us.
That Costello’s friendship with the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky was a source of inspiration for this disc divulges how meaningfully their lives intersected. Whether by intention or by inference, this disc, which could have accommodated so much more music, can be construed as a heartbreaking metaphor for a life ended too soon. At its most joyous, there is almost always a vein of wistfulness in bel canto, and A te, o cara is a disc in which smiles and tears meld with staggering verisimilitude. This is one of the glorious capabilities of music, and Stephen Costello brandishes it on this disc and on stage with vocal gold and artistic generosity.