Celebrity Series of Boston 2024 In Review: Anthony Roth Costanzo & Bryan Wagorn

By João Marcos Copertino


Anthony Roth Costanzo is currently one of the most popular countertenors. There are more than a few good reasons why, including his powerful voice which resonates well in the Metropolitan Opera and the London Coliseum, his good impresario skills, his activism especially for LGBTQ+ causes which is meaningful to countless young musicians and operagoers. Not that the Operatic world ever lacked for queer figures, but it is always good to hear loud voices talking about it. His capacity to communicate with his audience on many platforms and his fervently militant advocacy for contemporary repertoire are also good reasons.

A recital, nevertheless, is a place where all those credentials are put to the test. Unlike in opera, where the singer has the support and feedback from a legion of professionals, recitals leave the vocalist most vulnerable. Some singers circumvent this by sharing the spotlight attention with a gifted partner, usually a pianist. Oftentimes, we are blessed with partnerships such as Renée Fleming and Evgeny Kissin or Lea Desandre and Thomas Dunford—and seldomly, piano divinities share a tip of their stardom with a vocalist: One might love Ian Bostridge and Thomas Padmore, but just imagine the privilege, and test of nerves, in singing along with Mitsuko Uchida’s hands!

Costanzo had next to him the competent and capable hands of Bryan Wagorn, a brilliant musician in his own right who plays repertoire spanning from Baroque works to Barbra, Streisand for the straights, with much dignity and graciousness. However, Costanzo made sure that all the attention of the night was drawn to him, and that was the first of many mistakes.

Do not get me wrong, Costanzo’s credentials would take a lifetime to enumerate, and more than a few people in the house seemed to really enjoy the recital—though the hall was far from half-occupancy. It was a cold night. Experience tells me that Boston audiences are generous and gracious with or without their hearing aids.

The main idea was to make a recital that blended classical music with a gay sauna show recalling Bette Midler or “Liza with Z.” Cabaret and Sauna Divas shone precisely from their gifts as performers and entertainers above everything else. Liza sings exquisitely, but she also acts when she sings. It requires a sagacity and campiness in the delivery of a carefully crafted text that only seems to be careless, a construction of a persona lives in the impossible coincidence of extremes: saggy, but catchy; histrionic, but tender; proud, but sorrowful. Drag queens do that at Saturday morning brunch; Alan Cumming seems to live for it. Costanzo has to learn yet how to do that, perhaps with the aid of a well-intended dramaturgist.

In a recital almost entirely focused on the construction of his own persona, Costanzo managed to sound needy, overly privileged, professorial, and self-laudatory, with very little appreciation of the music itself. Almost every song in the recital was introduced by a long, loosely plotted, and usually self-congratulatory anecdote that, only marginally connected to the music, and sustained attention only as far as one’s interest in the would-be star himself could support it. There was so much namedropping that had it formed the basis of a drinking game, I would have returned home more than a dozen absinth shots heavier—if I could find my way back home at all…

To understand where Costanzo went wrong, we ought to unpack what his inspirations did right. Barbra Streisand, his main reference, gains her credibility by transfiguring her vulnerabilities into artistic statements that are both sublime and forms of pastiche. When she sings “Smile” on Oprah’s show in homage to her late dog Sammy, it is hard to not be immersed in her act. While Oprah’s audience cries, Babara makes no concessions in the showcasing of her Diva-ness, including her voice, her off-white look with a mic specially sprayed off-white for her. But she is telling us something about the song that is extremely sorrowful: the loss of her beloved little dog. It is TV and mass media, but it is entertaining and also extremely meaningful.

Costanzo, on the other hand, made all his soliloquies incessant cries of self-praise. His stories were either banal, as in reference to Sarah Ruhl that mischaracterized her usual textual wittiness, or self-laudatory to a degree hard to convey in words. And there was a certain kind of vulgarity that is devoid of any possible charm. In a queer performance, vulgarity always has a place, but there is a difference between the Divine Miss M accepting her Golden Globe award, while making several phallic allusions and suggests sleeping with many members of the Hollywood foreign press association, and Costanzo’s telling about his first Italian lover (eroticized and forgetfully treated by him, by the way) in the face of an erupting Mount Etna. Costanzo must always “save face,” without ever having something to be ashamed of. There is no self-deprecation. An audience member near me whispered Henry James’s words: “they now prepared with her help to enjoy the distinction that waits upon vulgarity sufficiently attested.”

The banality of Costanzo’s soliloquies showed how unsuitable his repertoire was for whatever he was aiming at artistically.

His opening act was Vivaldi’s “Gelido in ogni vena” from “Il Farnace.” Although thematically proper for a night when it was 19 degrees outside, it was impassioned but inconsistent. This extremely difficult aria is often sung in the middle of a recital—with a very warmed-up voice. The Italian was properly pronounced, but there was no distinguishable narrative inside his singing.  Sometimes too loud, sometimes too pitchy, each repetition of the “A” part of the aria, instead of delivering a new nuance of the heartfelt emotion of an undone father, gave the impression of empty attempts to understand the acoustics of the room. Moreover, the piano part, though well played, sounded less than optimal for an aria that shines in the bleeding, descending notes of the strings.

“Sento in seno che in pioggia di lagrime” and “Qual doppo lampi e turbini” were slightly better, but suffered from Costanzo’s conspicuously unmusical breathing in the middle of words or mid-coloratura. Everyone needs to breathe, but it should be done dramatically and musically. Costanzo interrupted the dramatic tension instead of playing along with it.

It is evident that Costanzo has a particular kinship with contemporary repertoire. In fact, it is often enjoyable to listen to his fostering of new music. His rendition of three songs by Gabriela Lena Frank, “El Ribelde,” “Eufemia,” and “En la Vela del Angelito,” had its merits with minor difficulties in the transitions between the spoken and sung parts and some mispronunciation of the Spanish consonants. The introduction to these songs focused on Lena Frank’s diverse pool of identities and her political commitments inscribed in her song lyrics (“they talk about machismo” he said). I would like to hear the songs again to better apprehend their lyrics and musical nuances. It is, after all, always nice to see new repertoire.

He introduced Joel Thompson & Tracey K. Smith’s “Places we leave” using similar terms. With all due respect to Smith and Thompson, Smith’s poem “Annunciation” is extremely dear to me, I had a hard time understanding this song both musically and textually.

“Have you ever heard a Countertenor singing Verdi?” Costanzo asked the audience, introducing us to a glimpse of a night that could have been, had he decided for a perhaps savvier and more self-indulgent program. Unlike Bruno de Sá Nunes, who has high hopes to one day sing Violetta (something that I might pay good money to see), Costanzo restrained himself, singing only four chamber songs, including “Deh Pietoso, oh addolorato,” “In solitaria stanza,” “Non t’accostare all’urna,” and “Stornello.” Even though these songs are often deemed preparatory to the Verdi arias, they are often sung by silvering divas (at least this has been my experience hearing them). Costanzo elicits from them a queer element that, though not particularly pleasing, is not devoid of a certain appeal. While some sopranos and tenors have tried to restrain themselves when singing these songs in order to capture their chamber music aura (especially in “In Solitaria Stanza”), Costanzo sings them operatically—but still not operatically enough. He struggled a bit with the intonation in the higher notes but delivered a sort of old-school, aged diva incarnation that, had it managed to uncover a bit more humor within the music, might have actually managed to be moving.

In the final part of the recital, when Costanzo talked less, he actually said more. The end of the recital featured his rendition of a few of Barbra’s songs. These were songs that he sang to circumvent his grandmother’s homophobia (a tiny bit of vulnerability was shown there) or that reminded him of when a “celebrity” crush touched his hand on a dinner date (“He touched me”). Although, musically, the songs could have been sung in more suitable keys (“My Man,” especially) or maybe with a microphone (Barbra songs are tremendously hard to be sung acoustically), they had their musical and dramaturgical purpose.

The encore embraced what was, to me, the most promising part of the night. Costanzo sang the two parts of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” third act Duettino “Crudel! Perché Finora.” Although the performance was clearly not intended to be a fine rendition of Mozart, it did serve the purpose of showing a part of Costanzo that is both fascinated and made fragile by Mozart. His performance is an impossible encounter, an impossible duet with himself that otherwise could never be. It was in many ways improper: his voice is too campy and woody ever to sing the part of Susanna; his Count has no tonus and is funnily unentitled. Nevertheless, the object is not the Count or Susanna, but precisely the unsuitability of one’s voice when facing music that is so much greater than one’s performance skills. In that little and unpretentious encore, Costanzo finally managed to convey something that is commendable: the capacity to show what is lacking in the performance without neglecting the performer’s own amazement at the music that for a few moments occupies his body.

It is no doubt evident that I had a hard time watching Costanzo’s recital, but I cannot refrain from saying that Costanzo, as an artist, has some merits that make him highly remarkable. It just seemed to me that, for most of the night, his instinct for self-preservation and attention seeking made him deviate from what has made him such an interesting performer in the first place: a strong admiration and true emotional connection with his repertoire.


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