Cher Public

New faces of 2014

Once upon a time, a man and a woman met. He could sing, she could sing. They fell in love, got married, and became a power couple to rival Billary. I’m talking, of course, of Giulia Grisi and Mario, opera’s original Love Couple. Since Giulia Grisi, many singers have met, fell in love, and married, and marketed themselves as the New Love Couple.  

Adelina Patti scandalized society by divorcing her nobleman husband and marrying the tenor Ernesto Nicolini. They were a nice singing duo. She was the star, and he made sure that her name was always the largest on all the posters.

Emma Eames and Emilio De Gogorza were more Odd Couple than Love Couple, but they did record Messager’s “The Swing Song” in which de Gogorza twitters “You are laughing, oh tell me why.” (They divorced eventually, with de Gogorza giving this quote about Eames: “She’s impossible. She makes a fine art of rudeness.”)

The most tragic Love Couple of this current generation was Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. Ah, how gorgeous they were! How deep and dramatic was their love! How beautiful were their recordings! Alas, all good things must come to an end, and Bobby/Angela were no exception to that sad rule.

Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez are the New New Love Couple. The eschew the dramatics of Alagna and Gheorghiu. The Costello and Pérez pairing has a Dawson’s Peak-like wholesomeness. Both are good-looking in a generically cute way. It’s not surprising that agents and record labels have decided to take advantage of their fresh-scrubbed good-looks and youthful voices by releasing a joint album.

The album’s name? Love Duets. The album is filled with precious glamor shots of the two of them looking very much in love. And just in time for their joint appearance at the Royal Opera House in La Traviata.

The programming is standard fare: operatic selections from Manon, L’amico Fritz, Rigoletto, L’elisir d’amore, Faust, La Traviata and La Boheme, and four Broadway duets from West Side Story, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, and Kismet. Are you guys bored yet? Because I’m already bored writing this.

It would help if Costello and Pérez had voices that weren’t also so Dawson’s Creek. The whole album has some nice moments but nothing to justify the hype. Ms. Pérez has the more attractive voice: a nice, dusky-voiced lyric soprano. Mirella Freni on the cheap is how I’d describe Pérez’s voice. Pérez’s top notes are whitish and screamed, and coloratura ability is unremarkable, but at least she sounds pleasant.

Costello has a pushed, nasal timbre, and his dynamics range from forte to fortissimo. Upper register is forced and strangulated. The close miking gives their voices more body than they’d likely have in a big auditorium—certainly the two times I heard Costello (in Anna Bolena) he was barely audible and ducked his way through “Vivi tu.”

It’s fitting that both Costello and Pérez are Richard Tucker winners and that this CD is “dedicated to the memory of Richard Tucker.” Sometimes Costello seems to be doing a Tucker imitation, with that relentlessly loud, nasal attack. The difference was Richard Tucker’s voice was a large spinto voice who could sing heavy-hitting parts Andrea Chenier and Alvaro. Costello’s like a tenorino who wants to sound like Tucker. His bull in a china shop approach to the standard lyric tenor repertory is a real turn-off.

It’s surprising that this Love Couple show so little intimacy in their duets. They are mostly belted out, Broadway style. In fact, their four Broadway duets are the best part of this album—they have fairly good diction, without that overdone operatic flair, as well as a straightforward, all-American manner that’s appropriate for these classic chestnuts. If they starred in West Side Story, I’d buy a ticket to see them.

But their operatic selections are unremittingly loud, charmless, and clumsily sung. Neither of them seem able to modulate their dynamics at all, or caress a phrase, or do any of the things that separates the Great from the Okay. The duet from Rigoletto has some unusual ornamentation that would be nice if either of them could sing it with any grace.

“Caro elisir” from L’elisir d’amore has zero playfulness from either party. Costello sings the repeated “tra-la-la-la-la’s” as if this were “Vicino a te.” The “O soave fanciulla” thankfully has Costello skipping out on the final high C, but you can go to YouTube and probably turn up a dozen superior versions just from contemporary singers with one search. The Cherry Duet from L’amico fritz is nice but have you ever heard a version of that duet that wasn’t lovely?

I really hope that as Costello and Pérez find a more individual, refined style to their singing as they progress through the operatic scene as the Love Couple. Right now they’re like that expensive dish at an upscale restaurant where you take a bite and realize that underneath all that sauce is Olive-Garden-style rubber chicken.

A palate cleanser is the new album of the Abzakhian/Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava. It’s taken from a live concert and it includes the orchestral selections (the overtures of La Clemenza di Tito, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Norma) as well as duets with baritone Arsen Sogomonian. Unlike the slickly-packaged Love Duets this album doesn’t even come with any liner notes.

Gerzmava’s no spring chicken—Wikipedia lists her age as 44, but her voice is the real thing— a dark, ripe instrument that can handle anything from Mozart’s Laudate Dominum to Medora’s aria from Il Corsaro to Strauss’s “Morgen.”

She’s not perfect. She does have that Russian tendency to swallow the vowels and thus there’s some rather mushy, cloudy diction (Anna Netrebko worked for many years before the potato mouth disappeared). For instance “Casta diva” sounds like “Cowstow divaw.” The voice has a prominent vibrato especially in the upper register that might not be to everyone’s liking. And it sounds as if she’s outgrown some of her album choices.

But the overall impression is that of a soprano of surprising loveliness. The voice has great float, shown to great effect in Desdemona’s double aria. The final A-flat in “Ave Maria” is sublime. Gerzmava is one of those singers who seems to find the center of every note, so the result is a firmness of the musical line that gives everything she sings weight.

And she’s diverse too—even though her voice sounds more like a lirico spinto than a coloratura, “Regnava nel silenzio” shows some lovely trills and a firmness with negotiating the musical line that gives this music shape and texture. She has some discomfort with the fleeter measures of “Quando rapito in estasi” and “Casta diva” betrays some strain in the upper register. But she always has plenty of authority, legato, and characterization. Gerzmava is a lovely singer with a lovely voice.

The baritone is not quite on her level but he does an okay version of “Largo al factotum.” Actually he sounds a bit like a baritenor, and my suspicion was confirmed by some tenor-like high options and ornamentations he takes in the Figaro aria. And the Dulcamara/Adina duet is charming.

Gerzmava is a singer who has gotten assignments in international opera houses (Met, Covent Garden, Vienna) but sticks closely to her home theatre in Moscow (the Stanislavsky). A few YouTube clips suggest that she’s a somewhat stolid stand-and-deliver kind of singer. But hers is a quality voice, with a more complete sound than Marina Poplavskaya, Olga Peretyatko and Ludmila Monastryska, just to name three Slavic sopranos who have gotten more attention. It’s a mystery why she hasn’t had a real breakthrough success. Maybe it will happen next year when she tackles all three Hoffman heroines for the Met.

The dual albums by Gerzmava and the Love Couple demonstrate that in opera, it’s not only about the voice you have, but how you market the package.

  • luvtennis

    Interestingly enough, Madame Blackhead is on record praising Lee as follows (paraphrase):
    “She approached Verdi from the perspective of Mozart rather than Puccini and the Verismo composers.”

    Her comments got me to thinking that Verdi is actually much closer is some ways to Mozart than to Bellini/Donizetti/Rossini -- even though he obviously drew heavily from the legacies of his Italian compatriots.

    In my opinion, Verdi, like Mozart, used vocal “types” in his music. as a short-hand. In other words, many of his characters are in essence “archetypes” whose musical/vocal characteristics define their dramatic function. Leonora in Trovatore is a prime example (and what an interesting twist on Donna Anna she represents!). This is very different from his bel canto predecessors whose soprano leads are much more idiosyncratic.

    Sorry if this make no sense, but I am writing from London in a jet-lagged, red-wined state.

    Staying at the Citizen M. WHat an interesting hotel!

    • Camille

      “In my opinion, Verdi, like Mozart, used vocal ‘types’ in his music”. INDEED!

      See this book for a wonderful interpretation of this idea: Verdi’s Theater: Creating Drama through Music, by Gilles de Van, and translated from French by Gilda Roberts, The University of Chicago Press.

      It certainly did explain a thing or three, or MORE, to me about Verdi and his

      Yes, I have spoken to excellent musicians who look on the Verdian line as not unlike that of Mozart only on a larger scale.

      • luvtennis

        Wow, I have never heard of the book, but will definitely search it out.

        I have felt this way for a long time, but I was reluctant to share for fear of being laughed at and mocked….

        • Camille

          An EXCELLENT book which will clear away many mysteries and answer many questions. It helped me a lot to grapple with Maestro Verdi.

          The author, Mr. De Van, “is a professor of Italian literature and the history of opera at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III). He has written many articles on nineteenth century Italian operas, especially those of Verdi. He is the editor of Guide Verdi”.

          My copy is in paperback, and I see I bought it in 1998, so one probably can go online at Amazon, or perhaps the Juilliard Store, to order. Unless one reads in Italian and reads from the Centro Studi Verdiani, or whatever it is called I cannot recall at the moment, this is one book which will give you a great deal to think and ponder upon and not as speculative theoretical spin, either. I hope you will be able to find it, luvtennis, for you should never fear being laughed at when you are essentially right.

          • luvtennis

            Thanks, Cammie!

            It is simply that I am nothing more than a passionate amateur when it comes to things musical!

            FYI, the vocal types theory is one reason why I have always resisted the casting of high mezzos in Verdi soprano roles. Even if the singer can manage the high notes, the registration and timbre are all wrong and completely upend the sound world that Verdi was striving to create.

            By contrast for instance, I have no problem with lower voiced singers tackling some of the great bel canto soprano roles. But in Verdi or Mozart? No way.

            • Noel Dahling

              So no mezzo Donna Elvira’s for you, luvtennis? :)
              There is a tradition for this,but DiDonato is the only mezzo I care for in the part.

            • armerjacquino

              To my huge surprise, Gens took the lower mezzo version of ‘Mi Tradi’ in the recent CG DG. I’ve never heard a soprano do that before.

            • luvtennis

              Actually, Noel, Elvira is an odd role. I think she is more of a character type than a heroine -- especially in her original mi tradi-less form.

              To me, Elvira is similar in some ways to Marcellina but obviously more important.

    • Buster

      I stayed in the Glasgow Citizen M. when it was brand new. Where else do you get a stuffed animal and free movies. Is that really old one set on a farm in Eastern Europe still there? Highly recommendable.

  • luvtennis

    FYI, the Giannini recording is wonderful but very veristic.

    Try the recording with Arangi-Lombardi if you haven’t heard it. It is much more stylistically apt, even if the supporting roles are not quite so strongly cast.

  • Guestoria Unpopularenka

    Listening to Grigolo’s new French album. So far it’s a bucket of high fructose corn syrup.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Back when singers were virtuosi:

  • pasavant

    Made it through about 90 seconds of the Elisir excerpt. I do not think Mr. Costello either does not practice enough or does not know how to . The sound of his voice is not unpleasing, but passages are thrown away and sloppy, notes swallowed. I attended a wonderful master class given by Benita Valente who repeatedly told the students to practice the hard parts, not the parts that came more easily.

    • pasavant

      Made it through about 90 seconds of the Elisir excerpt. I think Mr. Costello either does not practice enough or does not know how to . The sound of his voice is not unpleasing, but passages are thrown away and sloppy, notes swallowed. I attended a wonderful master class given by Benita Valente who repeatedly told the students to practice the hard parts, not the parts that came more easily.


  • Let’s get back to Perez and Costello should we. I never really cared for her or for her voice and when the Tucker awards were on TV I could’nt see why in the world she was given the award especially after Jamie Barton got up and sang. Last year at the Tucker awards he sounded better and his acting had improved. Someone is promoting them thats for sure. Last year at the Tucker awards it seemed to be all him instead of the recipient.He has alot of stage fright and if he could forget that he might be better. To me they would be better singing Broadway songs or in local opera houses for awhile. Maybe new teachers.

    • -Ed.

      I agree entirely. I saw Steven perform in a joint recital in Texas before his Met debut. He was the clear audience favorite that evening. He has a sheepishness about him. I suppose it’s stage fright, might just be his personality, but somehow it’s endearing. I keep thinking he will hit his stride when he immerses himself in the moody, broody roles. He still in the first 10 years of his career, so the best is yet to come. I’ve only seen Ailyn in bits & bobs on YT but I’m looking forward to watching their Traviata (*suppresses gag reflex*) from London.

      • laddie

        I have seen them perform together a couple of times. I saw her do Marguerite twice, once in San Diego and once in Santa Fe. Her Santa Fe performance was much better but it seemed that she wasn’t singing full out; of course in Santa Fe, it is sometimes muted at first due to the outdoor venue. That being said, her high notes were much better in Santa Fe and the production was loads better. I believe she really brings out the best in him in terms of his acting. I assume their careers are in full swing now and perhaps they are through with intensive coaching; I am hoping that with all of their London connections, their potentials will really turn into something special.

  • turings

    If anyone wants to watch their Traviata, the ROH livestream is here, and it’s just starting:

    (Though it’s not available in my country …)

    • Clita del Toro

      No one is at La Casa. .??

    • armerjacquino

      Just watching the big Act 1 scena now. I’ve not experienced Perez and I have to see I’m not sure this thread has been very fair to her. Strikes me as an excellent singer and actor.

      • armerjacquino

        have to ‘say’, obv.

      • PushedUpMezzo

        The lights just dimmed when she hit a high note in Sempre libera for some reason. Some phrases slightly snatched, but overall a nice performance from Perez.

        • armerjacquino

          She’s in and out of the followspot- those split second moments aren’t noticeable in the house but are always massively amplified on HD.

          • jackoh

            The production values for the BP screening vs the Met HD: the Met wins hands down!

            • armerjacquino

              Yes. Although this is for outside broadcast, not cinema- there’s a difference.

    • Camille

      Thanks very much for the link!

      At least I was able to see Act III and am so relieved to hear Costello no longer sounded like he did in the Bolena.

      i don’t know quite what to think of this pair except to say a better impostazione della voce (and I don’t know how else to express it) would be helpful for the adorable little Ms. Perez. Hard not to like, but love? Not yet.

  • PushedUpMezzo

    There are only 2923 people watching that Traviata live on Youtube right now -- in the whole world. Makes you realise how niche we are, I fear.

    • armerjacquino

      Or how badly publicised it is. I live in London, I’ve been to countless BP screenings, I had no idea TRAV was on tonight. And I only found out about the streaming from this site.

    • antikitschychick

      there’s also the time difference to take into account and its a weekday (I’m at work so I missed all of act 1). The other explanation could be that this lovely couple isn’t quite such a big draw yet.

    • Cicciabella

      I was watching, PUM, and thinking that the ROH’s doing such a good job of persuading everyone how accessible opera is: La Traviata is simple, short, easy to follow, with great sing-along tunes, etc. Perez is very charming and the ideal poster girl for popularising the art form.

      Then I saw Camille’s links to Giannini and Arangi-Lombardi singing O patria mia and… Well, now I’m afraid to go back to the pretty prima donna and John Eliot Gardiner’s Verdi.

      • Lady Abbado

        Funny, Cicciabella…I have one window with the ROH broadcast, and the other with Camille’s links to Giannini and Arangi-Lombardi…and I’m debating if I should just switch off the damned Traviata to listen to those two ladies Camille got me so curious about!

        I guess I’m waiting for some off-putting moment in the broadcast, to have enough justification to switch it off :)

        I was surprised to read in the side bar with comments that Perez got coached for the role by the great Virginia Zeani (Perez’ singing is sorrow evidence that there’s only so much that coaching by the greats can achieve)!

      • Camille

        You should never follow Camille’s links for she is a bad influence.

        We have to live in the present!!

    • Cicciabella

      Just remembered that Keenlyside is Papa Germont, so I’m plunging back in…

    • turings

      It’s not worldwide – or at least I was all set to watch it but it’s not available in Germany ‘due to rights issues’. If it’s just the UK, 3000 people on a Tuesday night strikes me as not bad.

      • PushedUpMezzo

        I think it’s multi-national.There are people from Hong Kong and Venezuela commenting on Youtube and quite a lot of positive comments from opera newcomers as well as the usual internet ****. And we’ve added another 200 or so viewers.

        • turings

          Just one of those region-specific copyright things then. Oh well.

          • Cicciabella

            The explanation is on the ROH website:

            Unfortunately the stream won’t be available in Germany, due to a dispute between Google (who own YouTube, who’ll be delivering the stream) and the German government.

            Hopefully this will be resolved soon, but at present we’re afraid the relay won’t be available in Germany.

            • turings

              Thanks, Cicciabella. You regularly can’t get music videos on YouTube in Germany because the performing rights agency (GEMA) is in dispute with Google over payments to their members for streaming, and for damages over copyright infringement. I didn’t realise it would affect the livestream as well.

              It’s been going on since 2009, and not much hope of it being resolved soon either. GEMA just went to court and won over the text that shows up on the ‘this video is not available’ notice, so that shows you the state of play at the moment:

  • Grane

    Tastes for a Violetta voice do change, don’t they? It seems that we’re going back to the days when lighter voices sang this role. Back when I was first getting interested in opera I wouldn’t have expected to hear Violetta sung by a Dessay or a Damrau. Is it a canard that you need to be a coloratura for Act I and a lyrico-spinto for the rest?

    • laddie

      Her voice seems to have really opened up in the third act. NICE! Costello killed it as well. Third act, of course, one of the greatest acts ever in opera, was to die for.

      • laddie

        The final act was fabulous! Ailyn knows how to create an arc in her performance. Wonderfully done.

    • Camille

      Yes, it is one big fat quacking Mallard!

      You need to be one damn fine Verdi singer, that’s all. Damn fine.

  • aulus agerius

    Everyone oversings: cords stand out in her neck. Not good. SC sounds same as always…….

    • PushedUpMezzo

      Costello is breaking up phrases and singing under the note in the deathbed scene. Perez very affecting here.

  • operaassport

    OT: Arthur Gelb, legendary Timesman and father of Peter Gelb, has died at the age of 90.

  • RobNYNY

    I think he sings constantly behind the beat. Like Millo, Freni and others. Some consider this to be artistic, other consider it to be sloppy and lazy.

  • Balvi

    To be fair to miss Perez, her performance in the broadcast was a completely different performance from the one I saw in the house last week. She seemed to peak at the right time. It’s not a performance for the ages, but it was totally respectable.. I found the performance of her husband to be sad. He seemed to be dramatically floundering all evening, and his singing was often under the pitch and strangely dull…MAYBE THE MRS stole his energy!!!!!!!