The Boisterous Baroque

The Boisterous Baroque

An Interview with Anthony Roth Costanzo

By John Sherer

I spoke with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo over the phone on a warm Sunday afternoon this fall. He joins the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for two performances December 4 and 6, on a program featuring music by Handel and Vivaldi. Our conversation is condensed and edited here.

John Sherer: You said of your wonderful work Glass Handel (which, for those who didn’t experience it, combined the music of George Frederic Handel and Philip Glass, along with numerous other feats by artists in various disciplines) that “Handel defined me and Glass shaped me.” Can you tell us more about how Handel defined you?

Anthony Roth Costanzo: As a countertenor, Handel is my bread and butter, and I feel really fortunate for that to be the case because what his music requires is a real technical acuity mixed with imagination. There’s a kind of freedom inherent in his music—not only for the continuo to work out the figured bass or things like that, but really for the singer to imagine the psychological journey and then to make that palpable through the expression of the phrases, the ornamentation, and various other modes of expression. That has really informed how I think about a lot of the opera that I do, and it’s also defined how I’ve constructed my voice to have the maximum flexibility to do very soft singing or very loud singing or very fast singing or very slow singing—all of those things are required to do Handel well.

JS: You’ll be joining CMS musicians in early December to sing three arias by Handel: “Pena tiranna” from Amadigi di Gaula, “Quella fiamma” from Arminio, and “Vivi, tiranno!” from Rodelinda. What do these pieces have in common?

ARC: Part of what they have in common are prominent oboe parts, played on these concerts by James Austin Smith, with whom I’ve collaborated for almost ten years now—first in the International Contemporary Ensemble, then at the Spoleto Festival, and now at Chamber Music Society. And that really is what chamber music is about: finding how to play music with the people you want to perform with. The pieces on this program have these duos for us, which is really fun.

Of course, the other thing they all have in common is that they express a kind of heightened emotion and they all come at crucial points in the plots of their respective operas, where they are able to present a kind of catharsis both musically and at important moments in their stories. That’s partly why I love them. I’m not so interested in the “polite” Handel arias; I’m more interested in how far we can take the drama.

JS: I’m glad you said that because I think a lot of people have the impression of Baroque opera as polite—that it’s a somewhat sleepy, easy-listening kind of music. But it seems to me that that’s really not what the Baroque style is about; the Baroque is about exuberant maximalism and allowing unruly heights of emotion. Would you agree with that?

ARC: Absolutely. I think that’s a good distillation, and we see that in the art. It goes back to that old comparison to baroque pearls, which are irregular and non-spherical in shape. There’s a gnarliness to the Baroque world that comes across in lots of different ways, and is actually very full of life and full of character, and anything but polite.

If you think of the opera houses where these arias were premiered, what is now called the stalls (or the orchestra seats in America) were actually like a big mosh pit, and the audience ate their chicken and talked through parts of the performance; it was your job to get their attention with the arias. Of course, it wasn’t till Wagner that we even turned the lights down. So the lights were on, everybody was socializing and eating dinner in the midst of the opera. For the people up in the boxes, that was real estate that they bought. They had curtains in those boxes because often the curtains were closed and people did illicit things in them. So there was a lot going on in a Baroque opera house, and these operas were really—I know this is an oversimplification—they were the Netflix of their time; they’re so long because people didn’t have anything else to do. In the same way, when you don’t have something to do now you can binge-watch a show on Netflix. People wanted to binge these long operatic plots that kept twisting and turning and going on for hours so that they had something to occupy their evenings. So they are very contemporary and very human in that way, and I think because we have heard so much Baroque music on the radio or played in such a pristine, polite way, we sometimes lose track of that.

JS: One of the potentially challenging elements of this music for today’s audiences is the da capo form, with all the repetition. Was that a function of the situation in which the works were first performed? If people were talking through the show, then it makes sense to have repetitions, to get the music into people’s ears since they had one chance to hear it.

ARC: I think the repetition is more of a tool to delve deeper into the human psychology, and that is what opera can do better than anything. If you imagine how our minds work—I always use the example of when you have a crush on someone and you’re sending them text messages, then you often will, before they reply and while you’re waiting for them to reply, go back and read the text messages over again. Or you say, “If I were them, what would I think if I received this message?” And you kind of review it in your head. That is how the human brain works: we have one thought (in music, we call it the A section), then we have a new thought (the B section), and then we go back to the original thought and we see how it’s changed in light of that new thought, we ornament it in some way; but we really never have a thought only once.

So in a sense, verismo opera, which is supposed to represent “truth” in that it moves linearly, is not very true to how we are as human beings. And I think that’s part of what Handel got at. There’s not a lot of plot, as we know, in Handel arias because the plot all happens in the recitative; when we arrive at the aria, we’re supposed to actually feel what this person is singing about. Instead of keeping our minds engaged, it’s supposed to keep our senses and our feelings engaged, and that’s what I like about it.

JS: Let’s zoom in on Rodelinda. Can you tell me what’s happening when Bertarido sings “Vivi, tiranno”?

ARC: Bertarido has been captured by a bad guy, basically, and he’s been kept away from his wife and son and imprisoned by this guy. But then there’s an even worse bad guy who comes in, and he’s going to kill Bertarido’s captor. Bertarido saves his captor from death and kills the really bad guy. Then he says, “Live, you tyrant!” (which is “Vivi, tiranno”). In the B section he explains, “I saved you only to show you that my heart is bigger than my fate.” What he means, essentially, is, “Go ahead and kill me if you want, but just know that I saved you to show you how valiant I am, and how compassionate I am.” In that moment, of course, the bad guy sets him free, gives him what he wants, realizes the error of his ways. It’s a real morality tale at a crucial point in the opera.

JS: It seems like such a great example of Handel’s ability to portray complex characters who find ways to change over the course of the action.

ARC: Yes, exactly.

JS: In reading around about this, I found this quote from Handel scholar Ruth Smith, who observes that in this moment Bertarido, after being sidelined throughout the opera via exile and imprisonment and defeat, is for the first time “able to speak out as himself, instead of skulking in the shadows.” Does this moment resonate with you in a similar way?

ARC: Yes, he’s been hidden and disguised for most of the opera, and having been a great, valiant warrior who is forced to hide in the shadows, this is the moment when we see him in his full glory. And I think that’s very exhilarating; for the first time, instead of all the lamenting and raging against fate that he does before, he has in this aria a noble, victorious, major, sparkling quality, which is the true Bertarido.

JS: I’m thinking of the conclusion of your recent show with Justin Vivian Bond, Only an Octave Apart, which explores (among other things) the way in which singing as a countertenor provides you a path to radically authentic expression. What can you express about these characters (or maybe about yourself) that you feel you couldn’t as a tenor, baritone, or bass?

ARC: That’s an interesting question. The countertenor idiom, in which we look very different from the way we sound, affords an instant complexity to what the audience perceives, and it also represents a kind of duality in which we have to close the gap between perception and expression. It’s a great allegory, in a way, for feeling and being “other,” whatever that means, but having that otherness speak so poignantly and so powerfully that it becomes persuasive as an emotional truth.

JS: The program on which you’re singing in early December initiates our Baroque Festival, and pairs works by Handel and Vivaldi for the first time on a CMS concert. What can we expect from a pairing of these Baroque giants?

ARC: It’s fun to think about how different Handel and Vivaldi are as dramatists and as composers. Handel is much craftier with harmony. Vivaldi is much wilder with virtuosity, and he also has, I would say, a less refined sense of sorrow. The extremities of Vivaldi feel broader, and that can be really, really exhilarating. The power of Handel’s emotional take feels sharper. It cuts deeper.

It’s interesting to look at these juxtapositions and to feel how different they are, and also to think of the fact that Vivaldi himself was a performer, both conducting and playing violin, so he’s interested in a kind of showmanship and flair; Handel is really interested, it seems to me, in the characters and the humanity. There are times when the tables turn and what I’m saying is the opposite, but most of the time that’s the distinction I’ve felt between Vivaldi and Handel. It’s fun to play with that and to find the consonances and dissonances.

JS: After the concert with Handel and Vivaldi, the next two programs on our Baroque Festival feature Bach—we have Bach sonatas and then our annual Brandenburg Concertos. I know you’re not singing Bach with us this time around, but I wondered if you could say a little bit about performing Bach’s music. How does that compare to, say, Handel?

ARC: Bach is very different from Handel in a lot of ways. The liturgical aspect to his music feels very connected to the mind, as opposed to Handel’s music, which somehow feels connected to the body.

The other thing I can say is that when you’re singing Bach, you have to live one measure ahead of the measure you’re in. You have to be thinking ahead about where you’re going to breathe or some very complicated harmonic turn that you have to stay in tune for, or whatever it might be. Handel gives you the space to live in the measure that you’re in. So you can imagine from a performance standpoint the difference in expression that then occurs; there’s a kind of hyper-awareness with Bach, which I think makes it quite transparent in a very striking way, and there’s a kind of roominess to Handel that, for a performer, is full of possibility.

JS: Would you say it’s easier to stay in the moment when singing Handel?

ARC: For me, yes. Bach isn’t primarily writing for singers, so you have to really think carefully about arranging your breaths and phrases and all of those things. But it can be very gratifying, at the same time, to achieve these almost impossible long sequences.

JS: What does the Baroque aesthetic have to teach us today?

ARC: There’s a kind of intricacy that can be lost in our contemporary world because we’re so often switching between cabs and apps and all of those things. The only place I feel I can have a coherent, new thought is in the shower—or sometimes on a bicycle—because there’s no interface with technology happening in those moments. The Baroque requires us to slow our minds down in the same way and look at the intricacy of a phrase or a thought or a detail of a painting.

What it doesn’t present us with, which is really a relief, is perfection. Because perfection, I think, is so dull! The Baroque seems totally uninterested in that, and it’s something today that, with students needing to get straight A’s to get into any college and so on, we become obsessed with early on: this idea or myth of perfection. The Baroque doesn’t value that in any way. I think the Baroque really values a kind of truth (think of those misshapen pearls). Sometimes there’s a rough road to get there, and the Baroque artists held that journey in high regard.

John Sherer is Editorial Manager at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.