Gilbert Duprez… Adolphe Nourrit… Domenico Donzelli… names associated with the glory days of Bel Canto, when the likes of Rossini, Auber, Meyerbeer, Bellini, and Donizetti were writing operas in which great tenors paraded themselves before enraptured audiences that waited for the next God-given high C, D or E before going back to spying with their lorgnettes on those seated in the adjacent box at the Paris or Rome opera house.
And if we could only communicate up in Elysium with the hapless composers who kept all those tenors gainfully employed and taught them their music and massaged their egos we would hear some terrific tales of hubris and idiocy. But no, we can’t. Nor can we get a remotely accurate idea of what they sounded like, no matter what Stendhal and other critics of the time may say and wax poetic about Duprez et Compagnie.
We can and do listen to some re-mastered acoustic and electric recordings by turn-of-the-century greats and later still legends – Caruso, Gigli – and later throwbacks – Bonci, Schipa – who sort of sounded like the greats of the Bel Canto Age must have sounded when at their best.
But those are just approximations.
So it was with high expectations that we sat down to listen to the young American tenor Stephen Costello’s CD A Te, O Cara (DE3541) recently released by DELOS after having been beautifully recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic Hall in May of 2017, with Constantine Orbelian impeccably and idiomatically leading the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra.
Stephen Costello does not give away his sound by the pound. He is an intelligent, sensitive, highly musical singer who fastidiously pays attention to the text and the dynamic markings of the music he sings in this recording. His sound is luscious, his technique unimpeachable, his artistry beyond question.
The only aspect of this album I question is the choice of some of its repertory.
This fine tenor’s instrument is not the kind of voice for which Donizetti wrote either his La Fille du Régiment or his Elisir d’amore, or his Don Pasquale. Costello’s sound is clearly that of a lyric spinto tenor barely in his mid-30’s yet well on his way to taking on some of the big Puccini and Verdi roles.
Proof of the pudding: Costello’s Parmi veder le lagrime far exceeds this listener’s expectations. So does his Edgardo in Fra poco a me ricovero. In both the sound is substantial, yet never beefy, but utterly masculine and elegant.
Close your eyes and you’d swear you were hearing the young, pre-vocal debacle Di Stefano. I did.
La favorita, Don Sebastiano, Anna Bolena come from a different vocal universe than the comic Donizetti operas do. So does Bellini’s I puritani. In the excerpts from each of those included in this CD, Costello nails the legato, the top notes, the style, the variety of colors. The singing is unfettered and exciting. And there is never a hint of faking or backing off from vocal cliffhangers.
I look forward to more Costello. Maybe in his next CD he can include some of the heroic Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots… Le Prophète… L’Africaine…) and spice things up with some early Verdi rarities.
For now I am delighted to re-discover the promising young tenor I first heard in a Cincinnati La traviata some five years ago, now blossomed into a major player in the vocal scene.
Rafael de Acha