18th Century Concert in 19th Century Salon

United StatesUnited States Handel, Purcell, Bach, Vivaldi, D. Scarlatti: Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor), Bradley Brookshire (harpsichord), Jared Angle (dancer), Troy Schumacher (choreography), Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, The Player’s Club, New York, 28.9.2012 (SSM)

Handel: Rompo i lacci from Flavio
Aure deh per pietà from Giulio Cesare
Henry Purcell: Secrecy’s song from The Fairy Queen
Music for a while from Oedipus
The Evening Hymn from Harmonia Sacra
J. S. Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue
Vivaldi: Qual per ignoto calle
Recitative: Qual per ignoto calle
Aria: Quel passagier son io
Reciatative: Deh, più non regni
Aria: Qual dopo lampi e turbini
D. Scarlatti: Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 545
Sonata in G Major, K. 146
Sonata in D Minor, K. 141
Handel: Pena tiranna from Amadigi di Gaula
Vivi tiranno from Rodelinda

In an earlier review of the wild fractal opera Cracked Orlando I wrote: “Anthony Roth Costanzo seems to improve each time I see him, from his performance in Handel’s Ariodante at Juilliard to his role as Armindo in the New York City Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope. I look forward to seeing him at the Met some time in the near future.” Indeed, Mr. Costanzo did appear this past season in the Met productions of Rodelinda and the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island. In the latter he stood out in a small role as Fernando, but also had the opportunity to replace David Daniels, who was ill, as the lead singer.

In a gala concert to mark the opening of the new season, Salon/Sanctuary presented a recital by Mr. Costanzo, backed at the harpsichord by Bradley Brookshire. In addition, Jared Angle joined Mr. Costanzo in a ballet of Vivaldi’s cantata Quel per ignoto calle. The concert was held in the period salon of the Player’s Club (purchased by the actor Edwin Booth and modeled after the Garrick Club in London).

Emoting and gesticulating on stage is tremendously difficult for a soloist. It requires the performer to concentrate on the words and their meaning without getting distracted. This is particularly true of Baroque arias where the level of artifice is very high: men singing women’s roles, women singing men’s parts, the frequent occurrence of dei ex machina, improbable coincidences and illogical endings. There’s often a fine line between being emotionally convincing and tragic or just plain looking foolish. This was not the case with Mr. Costanzo, who from his first note exuded confidence and an assurance that nothing that he didn’t mean to be silly would be sung here.

Mr. Costanzo began with Handel’s aria, Rompe i lacci from Act II of Flavio. Guido, who is in love with Emelia, has just found out that her father has forbidden them to marry, and he sings of wanting to put asunder his love for her. In the original production this aria was sung by the great Italian castrato, Senesino. As with many of the arias that Handel wrote for his star singer, Rompe i lacci is a showpiece for the performer with long sixteenth-note melismas on the word lacci. Mr. Costanzo sang this, like every aria which followed, flawlessly. The aria Aure deh per pietà from Giulio Cesare, again originally sung by Senesino, received an earnest and heartfelt reading.

I’ve always found Henry Purcell’s music some of the purest and most unspoiled works by any British composer. There is an innate ability to grasp the very nature of the music and express it in a unique way that makes me think of Shakespeare. The genius of both men went far beyond what they could have possibly learned.  In “Secrecy’s song,” there is a Shakespearean-like sexual suggestiveness in the stretching of the word “pleasure.” “Music for a while” was lovingly sung over a repeating ground and “The Evening Hymn” appropriately ended the Purcell songs.

Mr. Brookshire then performed an instrumental interlude, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a showpiece that demonstrates both what the performer can do and what the particular harpsichord has to say. I was initially surprised at the overly bright and snappy sound of the instrument, but I warmed to it. Modeled after a 1738 German harpsichord, but with a second manual, Mr. Brookshire’s keyboard produced a varying timbre. This instrument came pretty close to the sound of Bach’s and his contemporaries’ keyboards.

Mr. Costanzo returned with Jared Angle to sing and dance to Vivaldi’s secular cantata, Qual per ignoto calle. Mr. Angle is to be congratulated not only for his sensitive dancing, to apt choreography by Troy Schumacher, but also for his ability to do so in a very limited space. While I wouldn’t add dancing to Costanzo’s CV, he did a fine job as the rejected lover, singing and acting the role with conviction.

The only disappointing part of the evening’s performance was Mr. Brookshire’s Scarlatti. There are many sonatas to choose from Scarlatti’s vast output and Mr. Brookshire picked some of the more difficult ones. Beginning with K. 545 and what seemed like a continuation of his tuning, he hesitated after the first measures but continued playing even after this false start. There are some wildly rhythmic and syncopated measures here with an outrageous series of quavers played against a bass line in octaves:

Scott Ross Scarlatti K. 545 (excerpt). Listen particularly from 12 sec to 20 sec


Mr. Brookshire had the Prestissimo tempo right, but wasn’t able to do justice to the sonata’s surprises.

K.146 and K.141 fared better. K 141 is noted for its rapidly repeated notes with a strongly accented often dissonant bass line. It also features hand-crossing which, before Kirkpatrick refuted the theory, was used as a criteria for determining a sonata’s chronology.  It was previously thought that as Scarlatti aged he developed such a belly that he couldn’t reached over it to cross hands and thus a crossed-handed maneuver would date the sonata as being written before his weight gain.

The evening concluded with two more Handel arias. Pena tiranna from Amagdidi di Gaula, though not as famous as Ombra mai fu, has its same emotional weight.  Mr. Costanzo’s attention to each word of Pena tiranna gave it a clarity and warmth that is the hallmark of his singing.  Vivi tiranno from Handel’s Rodelinda ended the program on an upbeat note.

Terrific performances in an atmospheric venue, small enough to feel you are part of a salon concert at a private home: what more can you ask of an evening’s entertainment?

Stan Metzger

 Scarlatti’s Kirkpatrick numbers, wrongly printed in the program, were corrected by Mr. Brookshire. (ed)