Anthony Roth Costanzo Exists to Transform Opera

Anthony Roth Costanzo
New York Times

It was 10 a.m., less than 12 hours after the final performance of the Vivaldi rarity “Farnace” at the Spoleto Festival USA here, and Anthony Roth Costanzo’s facial hair was already a thing of the past.

The “Farnace” production, set in a vaguely modern Middle East, featured the much-in-demand countertenor Mr. Costanzo, 35, as a sort of rebel, complete with what he called his “Aleppo beard.”

But Mr. Costanzo was clean-shaven and up bright and early on this June morning to unveil a vehicle for his plush yet precise voice: a Nashville-tinged art-song reorchestration of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Later that afternoon, he would delight an audience at Spoleto’s chamber music series with boyhood tales of singing backup for Michael Jackson and the Olsen twins before donning Orbisonian sunglasses and singing that timeless weepy.

“Music written before 1750 or after 1950,” Mr. Costanzo said after the performance. “That’s my life.”

Before 1750 is the focus this week, as Mr. Costanzo stars in a tech-savvy reboot of Handel’s “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo” at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from Wednesday through July 20. But he has also pushed beyond the old-music limitations of traditional countertenors, performing new works written for him by composers including Nico Muhly, Jake Heggie, Suzanne Farrin, Steven Mackey and Matthew Aucoin.

“The countertenor voice was the ultimate experimental tool for composers in the 18th century,” said the flutist and new-music maven Claire Chase, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Costanzo. “And I think what Anthony is doing is making that tool, with its range and its versatility, viable for composers in the 21st century.”

Anthony Roth Costanzo - “Ombra mai fu” from Xerxes (Handel) Video by WQXR
Baroque music, long the primary source of employment for countertenors — men who sing in the vocal register typically associated with mezzo-sopranos or altos — remains a major part of Mr. Costanzo’s career. New York audiences accustomed to seeing him in Metropolitan Opera productions of Handel’s “Rodelinda” and the Baroque pastiche “The Enchanted Island” will get a more intimate Handel in “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.”

Written for a wedding in 1708, this serenata — a form somewhere between a sonata and an opera — is about two servants who fall prey to their master, the malevolent Polifemo. The National Sawdust production, directed by Christopher Alden, features a device that enables projections to respond to visual and musical cues in real time.

“Handel presents directors with a lot of challenges because da capo arias can be seen as repetitious — no plot, all emotion,” Mr. Costanzo said. “So it becomes that much more important to find different colors along the way.”

National Sawdust, where Mr. Costanzo presented the similarly old-meets-new “Orphic Moments” last year, is also a more ideal space than the massive Met to experience what the director Peter Sellars describes as one of this singer’s best qualities. “He has this super pianissimo that just stops traffic,” Mr. Sellars said.
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