The audience streaming into the Balboa Theatre Friday night (September 5) may indeed have been drawn to this duo recital presented by San Diego Opera because of the vocal prowess of soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello. But the significance of this event exceeded their elegant, vocally resplendent program: it signified the rebirth of a major U.S. opera company that nearly went out of existence only a few months ago.
New Board President Carol Lazier and Education Director Nicolas Reveles received thunderous ovations as they welcomed the 1200 plus (only a few seats short of a sold-out house) opera lovers to this inaugural program of the company’s 50th anniversary season. Since the saga of San Diego Opera’s near-death and revival has been extensively chronicled, including a long article in Monday’s (September 1) New York Times, there is no need to recapitulate the details here.
Pérez and Costello quickly took the stage and launched into the familiar scene from the first act of Verdi’s La traviata, where Violetta and Alfredo meet and flirt. Having seen these singers perform this Verdi classic in July at San Francisco Opera, I immediately missed the full orchestra in the pit, the lavish Parisian high society costumes and dazzling scenery—for all of 30 seconds. Recreating this highly charged encounter on the Balboa stage without props and costumes, accompanied solely by piano, these singers plunged their audience into the raw emotional immediacy and barely suppressed ardor of this drama in a striking way that an opera house performance can only suggest.[php snippet=2]
Starting their program with Verdi was canny, but safe. Moving into a set of art songs by the minor French composer Reynaldo Hahn, beloved almost exclusively by music teachers and professional accompanists, was a potentially dangerous choice. Pérez gently floated these febrile melodies, lingering over each poignant moment like Edith Piaf caressing the phrases of a Paris street song, and her creamy phrases invited the listener into the lush decadence of high society salons at the turn of the last century. Assisted by the acute stylistic sensitvity of her accompanist Danielle Orlando, Pérez made the obscure Hahn seem like a cherished friend.
Costello proved equally daring, offering a 2008 song cycle by the young American Jake Heggie (composer of the operas Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick), Friendly Persuasions: Songs in Homage to Poulenc. Each song depicted a friend or colleague of France’s most esteemed song composer of the last century, from the demanding Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (for whom Poulenc wrote a harpsichord concerto, Concert champètre), to his most reliable song interpreter Pierre Bernac, to a deceased lover Raymonde Linossier, to the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard (whose poems Poulence turned into the noted song cycle Tel Jour, Telle Nuit).
Having created the role of Greenhorn in Moby-Dick, Costello could not have been more sharply attuned to Heggie’s laconic, ingratiating vocal idiom, which he infused with burnished vocal color. He captured every emotional state in Gene Scheer’s dense poetry, from the flippant discourse in “Pierre Bernac” to the searing regret of “Raymonde Linossier.”
To move onto more familiar territory, Pérez gave a charming, playful account of “Je suis encore” from Jules Massenet’s Manon, and Costello brought home the cavatina “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” from Charles Gounod’s Faust with suave confidence. Two more semi-staged opera encounters, a bit of light-hearted taunting from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and tender courting from Pietro Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, found the husband and wife duo thoroughly engaged in captivating amorous exchanges. Especially in the favorable acoustics of the Balboa, their voices proved well-matched, and their vocal colors blended in a most sumptuous fashion.
For this listener, Pérez’ masterful traversal of Manuel De Falla’s song cycle Siete canciones populares españolas proved the evening’s high point. She fused emotional abandon with vocal assurance in the more ecstatic songs, yet probed the quieter songs with compelling empathy. Her “Asturiana” was nothing less than transcendent. For those keeping score, this was the fourth local performance this year of some incarnation of this cycle, and in my book, the only one that actually got it! Kudos to pianist Orlando who triumphed over De Falla’s glorious but brutal accompaniment.
Three romantic songs by Paolo Tosti verged on too much of a good thing, and Costello had to start the first song “Non t’amo
più” over again when he momentarily lost his place. He completed the set with ease, however. Their encore package began with a medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which the duo gave a robust, verismo treatment that brought the sonic location of that ardent duet “Tonight” closer to Turandot’s palace than a Manhattan tenement. From the Great American Songbook, Costello offered Vincent Youman`s “Without a Song,” and Pérez countered with Fernando Obradors’ “Del Cabello más sutil.” Finally, they united in “If I loved You” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.
Many critics have dismissed the traditional vocal recital as an unsustainable relic in today’s fast-moving performance arena. But if it has a future—and I would say it does—Pérez and Costello convincingly demonstrated how to make it happen.