19 October 2012

Afterthoughts on Anthony Roth Costanzo at the Players Club

Like Teresa Stratas, ARC-en-Ciel (background) has the power to seem the most imposing figure onstage — at least until an Apollo like Jared Angle (foreground) makes his entrance.

Writing of the premiere of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls at Fort Worth Opera a couple of years ago, I confronted the sobering realization that I had brought to bear too much of my education. As my Brown classmate Rick Moody has observed of the graduate writing program at Columbia University (which he followed a few years before I did), much of the workshop process is predicated on the notion that any new work is necessarily a work in progress, and therefore one’s criticisms derive from fault-finding, ostensibly with a view to “improving” the piece. Much less emphasis is placed on identifying areas in which the new work is successful, and in the case of music–theater work, on how the audience (not to mention the producers) got its money’s worth.

As it happens, Jorge joined me on September 28 for a performance that made me face the same issues: a collaboration among that polymath prodigy, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo; New York City Ballet principal dancer Jared Angle; harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire; and choreographer Troy Schumacher, under the aegis of Jessica Gould’s Salon/Sanctuary Concerts program at the historic Players Club on Gramercy Park. While primarily a fairly straightforward recital of Baroque music, the program offered as a centerpiece a choreographed performance of Vivaldi’s cantata Qual per ignoto calle, in which Angle joined ARC-en-Ciel, nothing if not a flexible artist who danced at several points, as well.*

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t walk out of the performance thinking — and talking — of ways to “improve” what was, on a purely gut level, a marvelous experience. What follows is my belated attempt to correct my own responses.

The James Franco of countertenors, ARC-en-Ciel is no stranger to multi-disciplinary stage pieces: having co-written, produced, and starred in The Double Life of Zefirino, he’s better aware than I of the challenges involved. Moreover, he and his collaborators are acclaimed artists, much in demand in their primary fields and very, very busy. ARC-en-Ciel particularly is taking off like a rocket these days. Who’s to say when these men would have time to work out the kinks in this show, if they even want to?

And really, if there were any flaws in the performance at the Players Club, they were mostly logistical. Neither salon nor sanctuary, the space at the club isn’t designed for multi-disciplinary programs, and depending on where you sat, sight lines were terrible. Much of Angle’s dance was obscured for me by a pillar.** In order to put on the dance, Brookshire’s harpsichord had to be moved back and forth, and so it also had to be tuned and retuned (a harpsichord’s tuning evidently more delicate than a chocolate soufflé), which prolonged the concert: a different ordering of the pieces would have streamlined the evening.

Artistically, my principal complaint — my only complaint, really — lies with the choreography. While Schumacher found some marvelous means of incorporating the singer in the dance, at some points Angle simply picked up ARC-en-Ciel as if he were an inconveniently located piece of furniture, a floor lamp perhaps, and plunked him down by the harpsichord, out of the way of the next steps. Heck, even Dick Van Dyke managed to dance around the ottoman, those nights when he didn’t trip over it.

But in hindsight, these things don’t matter much. Consider that I had an unbeatable opportunity to witness ARC-en-Ciel’s stage presence. Singing arias by Handel and Purcell and wearing a suit, he’s commanding: you’re consumed by his gleaming voice, his astute musicianship, his uncanny fidelity to text (in songs where, to many people’s thinking, the words barely matter at all) — and, let’s be honest, his good looks.

Then set him barefoot and coatless alongside Angle, a strapping fellow by any measure, and ARC-en-Ciel seems suddenly fragile, and all the more so as he traverses the searching, lonely lines of the Vivaldi cantata. In the choreography, the men were by turns friends, lovers, and alter-egos: sometimes Angle’s dancing illustrated what ARC-en-Ciel described, and sometimes he took a more dramatically active part, provoking or consoling the singer.

This was all the more fascinating because countertenor singing by its very nature (or its alteration thereof) challenges conventional notions of masculinity — especially in works written for castrato. In ARC-en-Ciel we have an artist who can, as Marilyn Horne might say, “Sing big” (as too few young singers in any voice type can do), and yet who explores his vulnerability, who projects heroic virility even as he’s acted upon by another man.

Hell, yes, I’d like to see them develop this piece further. But what I got was stunning, and weeks later, I’m still turning it over in my mind. That’s revolutionary in more ways than one.

*NOTE: ARC-en-Ciel does indeed move beautifully, but he doesn’t have the pop singer’s option of lip-synching when the dancing gets strenuous. His movements here left him plenty of breath control, and so we’ll have to wait to see him pay homage to Britney.

**Okay, I bought a cheap seat. It didn’t occur to me to ask for a press ticket.

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