Friday 17 November 2023

An eclectic mix of 18th century opera in vivid performances: Anthony Roth Costanzo and La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Photo: Matthu Placek)
Anthony Roth Costanzo (Photo: Matthu Placek)

Mozart: arias from Mitridate, Re di Ponto and Ascanio in Alba, Ombra Felice; Gluck: arias from Orfeo ed Euridice, suite from Don Juan; Rameau, Boulogne; Anthony Roth Costanzo, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; Wigmore Hall
15 November 2023

Arias from early Mozart operas and from a Gluck's classic in vivid performances from the American countertenor supported by wonderful playing from La Nuova Musica

Debuts all round on Wednesday 15 November 2023, as both countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and ensemble La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates made their Wigmore Hall debuts in a concert that mixed arias from Mozart's two early operas Mitridate Re di  Ponto and Ascanio in Alba with the concert aria Ombra felice and arias from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, plus instrumental music by Joseph Boulogne, Rameau and Gluck.

It was a programme that seemed to pull in two directions at once, however if we didn't worry about what one piece said to another and simply concentrated on the high level of music making, then there was much to enjoy. The focus was very much on Costanzo with him performing a generous selection of eight arias in total. Whilst the countertenor has a wide range of roles both Baroque and contemporary, he is perhaps best known in the UK for singing the title role in English National Opera's production of Philip Glass' Akhnaten, though he made his Glyndebourne debut singing the title role in Handel's Rinaldo.

At Wigmore Hall, he performed two of Farnace's arias from Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto, 'Già dagli occhi' and 'Venga pur'. For 'Già dagli occhi Costanzo plunged straight in to the preceding accompanied recitative, the tone powerful, focused and intense. In both arias, he made significant use of highly expressive phrasing, there was no holding back from emotions. 'Venga pur', which concluded proceedings, gave him a chance to give us some real bravura singing. The concert aria, Ombra felice was also highly dramatic with Costanzo putting his all into the music.

In Ascanio's aria 'Al mio ben mi veggio avanti' from Mozart's Ascanio in Alba, Costanzo was similarly interventionist, emoting strongly with plenty of highly wrought phrasing. He sang with quite narrow focus in his tone and I will have to admit that it took me some time to warm to his voice, but there was no doubting that he really sold the music and the drama, putting a great deal into each aria.

There were two curiosities in the programme, two of Mozart's lieder orchestrated by Iain Farrington. Farrington's orchestrations, though deftly and imaginatively done, had the effect of transforming the rather charming lyrics into something more dramatic. In Costanzo's hands, Dans un bois solitaire became a thing of high drama, whilst Abendempfindung was emotional and expressive.

There were two further arias in the programme, 'Che puro ciel' and 'Che faro senza Euridice' from the original 1762 version of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. There is a clear line that can be draw from Gluck to Mozart, as Gluck's example of Reform opera was significant in itself, but the young Salieri became Gluck's protegee and then we are learning quite how much Mozart's Viennese operas were influenced by Salieri's later works.

Costanzo took a different approach to the Gluck arias. 'Che puro ciel' was sung with a very fine sense of line, and here the focus of his voice seemed to resonate with the simple line of the music. And Costanzo's singing was complemented by the fine detail of the orchestral playing. 'Che faro' was preceded by its recitative where Costanzo really laid into the drama, but the aria itself was notable again for his expressive sympathy of line. 

The orchestra began proceedings with Joseph Boulogne's Symphony in D Op.11 No. 2 (published in 1779). In three movements, the outer ones were vigorous and full of contrasts with plentiful use of the horns, whilst the middle movement was a graceful dance.

The orchestra punctuated Costanzo's sequence of Mozart arias with the 'Entrée de Polymine' from Rameau's Les Boréades, a stunningly lovely piece in itself, slow with a surprisingly rich orchestral texture, however it seemed at odds with the surrounding arias. The second half began with a suite from Rameau's Platée, four movements full of character, wit and colour.

After Costanzo sang the two Gluck arias, the orchestra gave us a suite from Gluck's ballet Don Juan, the work which preceded the great sequence of Reform operas, and which the composer mined for his French adaptation of Orfeo ed Euridice, so the suite ended with a thrilling account of a movement that became the dance of the Furies. 

The ensemble clearly relished the opportunities that Rameau and Gluck gave them, and their contributions was full of wonderful orchestral detail and vivid colour, you just wished that the whole programme had had a coherent form. As it was we heard an eclectic mix of 18th century opera in vivid performances.

The audience was enthusiastically vocal at the end and we were treated to an encore. By way of introduction, Costanzo explained that he was often asked about his 'real' voice. So, by way of an experiment he and the ensemble gave us a duet from Mozart's Don Giovanni with Costanzo playing both characters!

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) - Symphony in D Op. 11 No. 2 (pub. 1779)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - Vadasi ... Già dagli occhi from Mitridate, re di Ponto K87 (1770)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  - Ombra felice ... Io ti lascio K255 (1776)
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) - Entrée de Polymnie from Les Boréades (1763)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Dans un bois solitaire K308 (1777-8) arranged by Iain Farrington
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  - Abendempfindung K523 (1787) arranged by Iain Farrington
Jean-Philippe Rameau - Suite from Platée (1745), Overture • Air Pantomime • Rigaudons • Orage
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) - Che puro ciel from Orfeo ed Euridice (1762)
Christoph Willibald Gluck  - Che farò senza Euridice? from Orfeo ed Euridice 
Christoph Willibald Gluck  - Suite from Don Juan (1761)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Al mio ben mi veggio avanti from Ascanio in Alba K111 (1771)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Venga pur minacci from Mitridate, re di Ponto K87

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