Stephen Costello: A te, o cara
The American tenor Stephen Costello needs no introduction, but he’s reintroducing himself anyway with this new disc of bel canto calling-card arias, just as he is moving on to heavier roles such as Don José. He’s also emerging from some professional and personal challenges – nothing that directly endangered his vocal mechanism, though a tonsillectomy came close. So it’s gratifying to report that 10-plus years after his 2007 Metropolitan Opera debut, the 38-year-old Costello sounds as vocally fresh as a newcomer but with a greater understanding of text and style that puts him on new artistic ground. The nothing-fancy production values of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra under Constantine Orbelian suitably frame the emotional directness of the performances.
Costello’s greater colouristic range is apparent in every selection, allowing recitatives to speak with more light and shade, as in ‘Tombe degli avi i miei’ from Lucia di Lammermoor but especially in the cadential climax to the Anna Bolena cavatina, ‘Vivi tu, te ne scongiuro’.
The most dramatic development – darker colours and the vocal weight that comes with them – can be too much of a good thing. Like Lawrence Brownlee, Costello flexes his vocal muscles too readily in this studio-recording setting, where nuance speaks louder than volume. As impressive as his sustained vocal tension is in the album’s title aria, ‘A te, o cara’, Costello starts out so stentorian that he leaves himself too little room to build.
On the language front, no current tenor can match Luciano Pavarotti’s intuitive handling of Italian text, though Costello has moments of great emotional specificity without resorting to the interpretative overkill that sometimes afflicts Vittorio Grigolo. Also, Costello’s voice readily contours itself to the French of arias from La fille du régiment. High notes are healthier and more full-bodied than before, though one does hear the technical mechanics that Juan Diego Flórez so artfully disguises on a good night. Amid such comparisons, one happily returns to Costello’s warmth of tone and the wonderfully scaled vibrato that never disturbs the long-term vocal line. His strong musical engagement especially gives continuity to the potentially tiresome ‘Deserto in terra’ from Don Sebastiano.
Two arias that forever put lyric tenors to the test are bravely included. Costello nails the multiple high Cs in ‘Ah mes amis, quel jour de fête’ from La fille du régiment, though what handily puts him across the finish line is the overall characterisation and larger sense of musical intent behind the vocal athleticism. And Costello’s elastic moulding of the texts and phrases in the much-recorded ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L’elisir d’amore reflects his deepening artistry.