Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello in SDO recital

Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello. Photo courtesy of San Diego Opera.

Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello. Photo courtesy of San Diego Opera.

Soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello are “Most Triumphant” in recital for San Diego Opera

San Diego: Saturday, September 6

Review by David Gregson

Before I witnessed what transpired last night in the Balboa Theatre, the cynic in me wanted to call out the Costellos for making just another stop on their CD promotion tour — but it turned out to be so much more than that. The album in question is Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello: Love Duets, and I have put the track listings at the end of this review. Unlike this recital for San Diego Opera in which they enjoyed an excellent collaboration with pianist Danielle Orlando, the CD featuring the Costellos, America’s favorite husband-and-wife team of operatic lovebirds (if the hype is to be believed), is backed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Patrick Summers.

The concert at the Balboa was “most triumphant” (if I may be allowed a semi-youthful reference to Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Adventure), and for many reasons. It marked the beginning of what everyone hopes and prays will be the total resurrection of the San Diego Opera after the scandalous departure of its former impresario who had pronounced the company dead at the age of 49. Now if all goes well, the 50th anniversary of the SDO will be celebrated as originally planned. Many thanks are due to many people, but especially to Carol Lazier, new president of the company’s board of directors, and Nicolas Reveles, director of education + community engagement, both of whom appeared on stage last night to receive a loud and enthusiastic ovation. Later on in the evening, Costello asked the audience to stand and give itself a cheer. After all, many small donations from hundreds of people helped make the evening possible.

As I say, it was a most triumphant, most excellent occasion, but I would have been happier if I had seen some young people in the audience, people who might get a reference to the goofy patter of Bill and Ted. Perhaps the young folks were in the balcony. I certainly hope it’s not just us oldsters keeping a moribund art form from certain death. The only truly younger audiences I am seeing these days are at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s progressive Green Umbrella series in Disney Hall.

(Youth! So fleeting! Bill and Ted appeared on the scene in 1989. They’re ancient history already. How do we reach out to something we can never quite keep up with? I so hope we can.)

Recitals are a tricky business, really, no matter the age or the interests of the audience. The programs need to be carefully constructed, carefully thought out. Art songs turn off many opera lovers who wish only arias from Verdi or Puccini. Nonetheless, the Costellos were able to build a program that really worked despite its heterogeneous ingredients. They bookended the first part of the recital with scenes from Verdi’s La traviata and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. In the Verdi they could show their appeal as romantic lovers, and in the Donizetti they could show off both their comic abilities and mastery of bel canto singing. Costello, needless to say, excelled at impersonating the giddy Nemorino and his magic love potion, all the while using an ordinary water bottle as a prop.

The biggest musical jolt was the segue from La traviata to Pérez singing three ravishing art songs by Reynaldo Hahn: À Chloris; Le rossignol des lilas; and Le printemps. These are numbers not on the new CD album for obvious reasons. Because Pérez has such a plush luscious soprano and she so obviously loves these songs, she communicated everything in them. And this despite the fact there were no supertitles and the theater lighting was so dim you could not possibly read the texts without a flashlight.

Fortunately, I remember too well what it was like before the advent of reading titles at operas. You had to prepare. I did this for decades. However, even today most song recitals remain confusing experiences with people searching for translations in the dark. And loudly rustling the programs and turning pages as they go!

The Hayn songs ushered in a string of selections that were either French or French related. Most successful and appealing to me were the Jake Heggie/Gene Sheer songs, Friendly Persuasions: Songs in Homage to Poulenc. Costello has recorded these and I thought they were so marvelous, I bought the album on which they appear the moment I got home. Heggie is an appealing, though hardly progressive contemporary composer, and one deals with his style as unique but conservative. In this set he quite cleverly incorporates Poulenc’s idioms into the music. The texts, hard to understand at the Balboa despite Costello’s excellent diction, are titled (1) Wanda Landowska; (2) Pierre Bernac; (3) Raymonde Linossier; and (4) Paul Éluard.

Poulenc, I must say, is perhaps the most witty and beguiling of 20th-century French composers. Heggie has accomplished a fitting tribute. The significance of the texts Heggie uses would constitute a separate essay. Poulenc wrote a harpsichord concerto for Landowska (whom I once met during a concert she gave at the old Russ Auditorium here in San Diego); Bernac was a very great baryton-martin for whom the composer wrote innumerable songs; Linossier, an influential childhood friend; and, Éluard whose poems Poulenc set, an early founder of the surrealist movement.

After the intermission, the couple sang very sweetly a duet that many opera-goers were certain to find unfamiliar, and, sure enough, the applause came exactly halfway through, just before the most memorably beautiful part. This is the so-called “Cherry Duet” from Pietro Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, a lovely tidbit from a composer who tried awfully hard. He wrote 15 operas, but this duet and Cavallaria rusticana are virtually all one ever hears.

As a great admirer of Mrs. Costello, whose work I have long loved more than her husband’s, I was just a little disappointed in her delivery of the Spanish songs by Manuel de Falla, seven in all: El pano moruno; Seguidilla murciana; Asturiana; Jota; Nan; Cancion; and Polo. Though I could not fault her diction or the beauty of her vocalization, they seemed deficient when judged in the Department of Odious Comparisons. For more oomph look to the recordings of Teresa Berganza, Montserrat Caballé, or even Victoria de los Angeles. Still, they were quite lovely.

Costello followed this with three songs by Paolo Tosti: Non t’amo più; Ideale; and Goodbye! This artist has grown a great deal since I last heard him live and I found almost everything he did last night quite wonderful, and these bittersweet romantic songs illustrated some gorgeous color and dynamic control. There were many tender notes to savor.

Things concluded with a little medley of Bernstein West Side Story songs for Tony and Maria including “Tonight.” There were shouts from the audience requesting Costello sing “Maria,” but that didn’t happen. Costello offered a touching tribute to the San Diego Opera and the people now attempting to revive it, and the couple closed out the evening with three encores: Vincent Yousman’s super-kitschy “Without a Song” (Costello); “Del cabello mas sutil” by Obradors (sung by Pérez, and yes, I had to ask the management what it was); and finally the duet, “If I Loved You,” the absolute epitome of the hypothetical love song, a specialty of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  This one is from Carousel  and I and several other patrons left the theater nostalgically singing it and correcting one anothers’ lyrics.

The Costellos are charmers. The late lamented Joan Rivers might have had a few words for Costello’s odd quasi-formal outfits, but certainly not for the Mrs. who looked glamorous all evening. She’s a gifted artist and a beauty, and he is a handsome and endearing combination of unexpected flakiness and a total pro. This entire event was, as I said before, most triumphant in almost every way. I am certain those who attended will never forget it.

Comments are invited below.

Nicolas Reveles comments:  I would like to point out…there were indeed a goodly number of college students there, with dates and partners, who hung around afterwards basking in the afterglow of the concert, absolutely thrilled that they had the opportunity to go. As members of our new community engagement program, Opera Exposed!, they were given free admission. But a number of their colleagues attended as well, I’m assuming as paid ticket holders. Like everyone else in the audience, they were thrilled as could be and it made my night to spend a little time with them afterwards. By fits and starts the kids will come, and this having been an offering of honest, hard-earned art, they were (and will continue to be) touched by it!

Anonymous comments: You neglect to mention lovely renditions of “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” (Costello) from Gounod’s Faust, and “Je suis encore” (Pérez) from Massenet’s Manon. My response: That paragraph has vanished mysteriously into the ether! These were important numbers in that they carried through the French theme from Hahn to the Massenet. Then we were wrenched back to Donizetti.

Track Listings from the CD

1. Toi! Vous!!…N’est-ce plus ma main -Jules Massenet, Manon
2. Suzel, buon dì -‘Cherry Duet’ -Pietro Mascagni, L’Amico Fritz
3. Signor ne prinicipe -E il sol…addio speranza -Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto
4. Caro Elisir…Esulti pur la Barbara -Gaetano Donizetti, L’Elisir d’amore
5. Il se fait tard -Charles Gounod, Faust
6. Un dì felice -Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata
7. O soave fanciulla -Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème
8. One hand, one heart -Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story
9. If I loved you -Rodgers & Hammerstein, Carousel
10. I’ll know -Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls
11. And this is my beloved -Robert Wright & George Forest, Kismet

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