06 May 2014

CD REVIEW: LOVE DUETS – Ailyn Pérez, soprano, and Stephen Costello, tenor (Warner Classics 825646334858)

Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello - LOVE DUETS (Warner Classics 2564633485)

LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), GEORGE FORREST (1915 – 1999), CHARLES GOUNOD (1818 – 1893), FRANK LOESSER (1910 – 1969), PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), RICHARD RODGERS (1902 – 1979), GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901), and ROBERT WRIGHT (1914 – 2005): Love Duets – Duets from West Side Story, L’elisir d’amore, Kismet, Faust, Guys and Dolls, L’amico Fritz, Manon, La bohème, Carousel, Rigoletto, and La traviataAilyn Pérez, soprano; Stephen Costello, tenor; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Patrick Summers, conductor [Recorded in Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London, 9 – 11 December 2013; Warner Classics 825646334858; 1CD, 65:42; Available from Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​​The best recordings of operatic arias and ensembles are like reunions with friends who, though perhaps absent for dishearteningly extended periods of time, are as familiar and treasured as immediate family. The metaphor can be extended both to the music and to those who perform it, for the success of a recording of excerpts removed from their broader contexts depends upon the listener’s ability to discern in the disembodied sounds of recorded voices the flickering emotions that have preserved opera from its distillation from the genius of Monteverdi unto the troubled climes of the 21st Century, when the survival of serious music is threatened by every sort of nonsense masquerading as cultural progress. Damning, too, are the pressures endured by today's singers, stresses that have so little to do with Art or artistry. It must be maddening to always be measured against standards that are different for every listener and to face criticism skewed by what other artists did or might have done. It is especially confounding for artists like soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello to so often be recommended with qualifications—tremendously promising American singers, one of opera's best couples, both recipients of the Richard Tucker Award—rather than commended for being what they are: two of the most emotive, expressive, and vocally persuasive singers of their generation. Love Duets, their first recording together, unites them in performances of some of the most iconic duets from opera and American musical theatre, and it is a disc that resounds with freshness, affection, and the simple joy of two young singers who love singing. Some of this music is rarely sung by voices of this quality, but the wistfulness of Bernstein and Loesser stands proudly in the company of the tender melancholy of Gounod and Puccini in these performances. All of the selections on Love Duets are indeed old friends, but this reunion unforgettably welcomes two golden-voiced new friends into the family.

Too many opera singers’ performances of music from the American musical theatre are problematic because the artists either over-sing or condescend to the music. For that matter, condescension is not uncommon among audiences. The natural, ideally-scaled singing by Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello in the Broadway numbers on Love Duets tacitly reminds the listener that, in previous generations, the distinctions between ‘serious’ singers in America’s opera houses and ‘popular’ singers on the Great White Way were less rigid. An artist like Ezio Pinza was not an important opera singer squandering his gifts by appearing in South Pacific: rather, he was a great singer polishing a different facet of his sparkling talent, and Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello validate the notion that much of the music composed for Broadway stages deserves to be sung by extraordinary voices. Few duets in the American repertoire have suffered more from well-intentioned mishandling by opera singers than ‘Tonight’​ and ‘One Hand, One Heart’ from Bernstein’s West Side Story, but Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello bring extraordinary honesty to their performance​s of the music. Theirs is legitimately romantic rather than artificially operatic ardor, but there is also a disarming naïveté in their singing: this is audibly the wonder-filled discourse of young people in love for the first time. ‘And this is my beloved’ from Kismet, its Borodin-inspired melodic lines wafting the piquant fragrances of exotic environments, is sung with simmering devotion, Ms. Pérez’s and Mr. Costello’s voices uniting like the first rays of dawn stretching across the sea. The inclusion of the magical ‘I'll Know’ from Guys and Dolls is unexpected, but it is a gamble that hits the jackpot: these two singers could charm the numbers off of a roulette wheel, and the sounds they make together in Loesser’s gorgeous music are the aural equivalents of the transcendent rapture depicted in Klimt paintings. The aptness of the music of Richard Rodgers among the repertoires of opera singers (and opera companies) is thankfully no longer questioned, but too few concerts by first-rate singers feature ‘If I Loved You’ from Carousel, which has become the sort of number that almost everyone acknowledges as superb music but virtually no one has heard sung with excellence to match. Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello make amends with an account of the piece that sparkles with vocal finesse and touches the heart by achieving precisely the right attitudes of warmth and wistfulness. In all of these numbers, both singers confirm that this is not easy music: it demands the best of their technical and interpretive abilities and unvaryingly receives it. Phrasing is deftly managed, both individually and in ensemble, the singers’ clear diction and avoidance of the pomposity that too many well-trained singers bring to musical theatre numbers contributing to their relaxed performances, and Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello negotiate the tessitura of the music with undisturbed confidence.

The rôles of Mimì and Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème provide Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello with obvious but especially congenial opportunities to align their individual but dove-tailed affinities for refined musical expression. In productions by Cincinnati Opera and Los Angeles opera, they impressed audiences with the earnestness of their singing, and this trait permeates their performance of ‘O soave fanciulla’ on this disc. Mr. Costello launches the duet poetically, the warmth of his tone instantly setting the vocal line ablaze, and the ascent to top A in unison with Ms. Pérez as Mimì joins Rodolfo on the phrase ‘Ah! tu sol commandi, amor!’ is breathtaking. The playfulness of Mr. Costello’s ‘E al ritorno?’ and Ms. Pérez's ‘Curioso’ in response is delightful, and the tonal lustrousness with which both singers deliver their lines is enthralling. Ms. Pérez soars to a shrill but beautifully-sustained top C at the duet’s close. The major-third harmony of Puccini’s written E4 for Rodolfo is rightly preferred, and Mr. Costello resolves the ultimate phrase with gleaming tone. ‘Suzel, buon dì,’ the familiar Cherry Duet from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz—sadly, virtually the only music from this charming opera now familiar to audiences—is shaped with extraordinary tenderness. The dulcet affection with which Mr. Costello sings ‘Di maggio è simile un vago fiore fragrante e roseo’ goes straight to the heart, and Ms. Pérez suffuses her voicing of ‘Sembra che parlino...Sembra salutino coi canti il raggio dell'aurora!’ with innocent passion she seems barely able to contain. Not since the early years of the careers of Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti has this music been sung so beautifully by voices of ideal proportions for the parts.

Washington National Opera’s recent production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore partnered Ms. Pérez’s winsome Adina with Mr. Costello’s heartfelt Nemorino, a rôle he has sung with great distinction at Glyndebourne and—earlier in 2014—at the Wiener Staatsoper. Their deliveries of the lyrical bel canto lines of ‘Esulti pur la barbara’ on this disc find both singers on best form in music that suits them perfectly. Both singers rise to the frequent Fs, Gs, and A♭​s​ at the top of the staff with freedom and effervescence, but it is the animation of their singing that draws the listener into both the performance and the lives of these characters. The offhand insouciance of Ms. Pérez’s Adina contrasts amusingly and touchingly with the amiable boyishness of Mr. Costello’s Nemorino.

Much of the acclaim garnered by San Diego Opera’s 2011 production of Gounod’s Faust was rightly focused on Mr. Costello’s Faust and Ms. Pérez’s Marguerite, and a souvenir of their sympathetic traversals of Goethe’s characters is offered here in their stylish performance of ‘Il se fait tard, adieu!’ The understated innocence with which Ms. Pérez delivers Marguerite’s ‘Il m’aime, il ne m’aime pas’ is sweetly moving, and the expansive eloquence of Mr. Costello’s phrasing of Faust’s ‘Porter en nous une ardeur toujours nouvelle’ leads to his thrillingly-voiced launch of the sublime ‘Ô​ nuit d’amour, ciel radieux.’ These qualities are replicated in their resonant singing of ‘N’est-ce plus ma main’ from Massenet’s Manon, in her inaugural performances of the title rôle of which Ms. Pérez earned considerable praise from London critics and audiences. Both singers bring incredible fervor to their performances without damaging the Gallic delicacy of Gounod’s and Massenet’s vocal lines.

For singers whose gifts combine dramatic vitality, lyrical grace, and innate command of bel canto, it is hardly surprising that the music of Verdi figures prominently in their careers, both individually and as a couple. Their singing of ‘Signor nè​ principe io lo vorrei’ from Rigoletto indisputably confirms the couple’s Verdian credentials. Recently lauded in Houston Grand Opera’s production of the opera, Mr. Costello’s Duca di Mantova is a virile but sensually sophisticated lecher, and his buoyant phrasing of ‘È​​ il sol dell’anima’ on this disc, cresting on a sunny top B♭, is fantastic. Ms. Pérez makes easy going of​ Gilda’s repeated top B♭​s, and the ebullience of the couple’s singing of ‘Addio, addio, speranza ed dio, speranza ed anima’ ignites Verdi’s rocketing vocal lines. Including the traditional interpolated top D♭​ in unison at the duet’s close strains Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello unnecessarily, but the effort is admirable. Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata are also rôles in which Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello have excelled, not least in the current revival of the opera at London’s Royal Opera House. Their singing of ‘Un dì felice, eterea,’ the scene from the opera’s opening Act in which Alfredo expresses his burgeoning love to Violetta, is one of the most enjoyable tracks on Love Duets. Mr. Costello’s voicing of the duet’s opening phrase, shaped by one of Verdi’s most memorable melodic lines, is ardent but appropriately poetic, and the sheer jubilation with which he and Ms. Pérez conjoin their voices is ravishing. To the detriment of the drama, very few Violettas and Alfredos manage to convey such sincere, uncomplicated affection.

Love Duets is not a perfect disc, but its imperfections are those of irrepressible enthusiasm rather than carelessness. Musically, this is a very satisfying recital of some of the most emblematic love duets from the Broadway and operatic stages. Those listeners who are attentive to the ascents of young singers of quality are almost surely already familiar with Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello: they will find in Love Duets, in which the performances receive superlative support from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers, an opportunity to renew their acquaintances with these wonderful singers. Those for whom Love Duets is their first introduction to this couple have before them an experience that, in the best of circumstances, comes but a few times in each generation, that of meeting new artists on the best of terms. Love Duets is neither an arbitrary title nor even merely a descriptive one: this is a disc in which the very personal love of a young couple, their loves for singing and for singing together, and the loves of the characters they portray are wedded indelibly. Few discs convey this marriage of life and art so affectingly. Ultimately, it is upon discs like Love Duets and the endeavors of singers like Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello that the future of opera depends.