Costello shows off his big voice in recital

Posted: March 22, 2011

Tenor Stephen Costello exploded the rigid form of the song recital Sunday, cheerfully dismantling and reshaping it to fit his exuberant voice and persona. Already an ascending force in opera, Costello skipped over traditions and expectations to show off his engaging, pure voice in songs, many of which sounded like encores.

With pianist Danielle Orlando, his longtime coach at the Academy of Vocal Arts, showing the way, Costello sang Irish ballads, two arias, and an array of Italian pastries in his debut in the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's series at the American Philosophical Society. No heavy lifting here; his hometown audience didn't expect Die Winterreise. He laughingly confessed it was only his second recital, and won every listener by chatting about his gig singing twice - at 8:30 and 10:30 - each Sunday at St. John's Church. "I'm Irish, not Italian," he said before singing "Danny Boy," and casting the words in Irish intonation. Who could resist that?

The informality, the youthful energy, the jokey talk from the stage could not cloud the fact that he sings with great intelligence and musicality, and that his ringing voice must be a force and presence in any operatic setting.

It is a big voice, and he used it enthusiastically. When he moved to a softer level, as at the end of Tosti's "Pierrot's Lament" or the often-sung "Ideale," the quality, the color, and warmth remained intact. Along the way, he offered other sentimental things by Tosti, Lehar's "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz," and Roger Quilter's arrangement of "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes." The supposed tragedy of a Tosti farewell, or a Viennese tear, could only evoke smiles. Singing "Goodbye forever" sounded like clever parody; no voice that buoyant could find tears in that line.

His arias asked for sharper listening. He began with "Questo o quella," offering a glimpse of bravura in characterization, and, as an encore, d'Amour" from Faust. These are young men's arias; Costello's voice has youth without touching anything suggesting a lack of discipline. He illuminated the character at the same time he celebrated his own rich talent.

His program included Liszt's Tre Sonetti di Petrarca, which seemed well-schooled, and a helter-skelter rush through Rossini's "La Danza." He ended with "Without a Song," perhaps a smiling reference to Mario Lanza, but more likely an expression of the pleasure of showing a young and gleaming voice.

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