It's hard to know for sure, of course, but it's probably safe to assume that Anthony Roth Costanzo has some control issues. Sunday night at the Barnes Foundation, the countertenor left nothing to chance. In a multi-genre creation called Glass Handel, perhaps the most unorthodox installment in Opera Philadelphia's O18 festival, even the audience was choreographed.
Crowds were grouped into different sections of the vast Annenberg Court. As Costanzo alternated between works of Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel, different artistic responses were playing out in each area.
Three dancers who occupied one stage tested the structural limits of their red Calvin Klein briefs and their fishnet torso wraps, strung with tassels. Across the room, a visual artist worked unseen from behind a large light-box screen, creating Picasso-like faces and thick black gestures.
Elsewhere, a video screen showed a knight figure moving across the grass, though admittedly there might have been more to the James Ivory/Pix Talarico video. I can't say for sure because a minute or two into the piece I felt a tap on my shoulder, and one of 24 "people movers" was gliding a chairlift beneath me and then gently wheeling me to the next artistic station.
Nearly everyone else had the same experience, and yet, not the same experience.
Costanzo gathered up a starry list of creative types for this project. New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck designed the movement. Renowned artist George Condo was the painter-in-real-time.
Raf Simons, the Belgian-born former creative director of Christian Dior who moved to Calvin Klein a couple of years ago, designed the costumes — not just for Costanzo and dancers, but also for the two essentially separate orchestras for Glass and Handel. Bassoonists and violists have probably never donned boots as Power Ranger-chic as the shiny black and colored-striped numbers they slipped on for the night.
It was an event that could tickle habitués of either the Academy of Music or Joan Shepp (or both).
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But at the center of it all Sunday night (after a preview performance Saturday) was Costanzo. Born in North Carolina, trained at Princeton and the Manhattan School of Music, the 36-year-old countertenor has presence. You could hear him and the orchestras, both led by Corrado Rovaris, wherever you were and wherever you were taken next.
Let me just take a moment to pare back the thicket of nonmusical factors to say that without a core musical element, all of the video, real-time visuals, and chair-gliding couldn't have made this even a vaguely important operatic experience. But Costanzo's musical expressivity made it worth it, and, after all, your eyes were always free to look his way. The richness of his voice through all registers, in fact, demanded it. He held the room.
It's clear that Costanzo and Rovaris hear both Handel and Glass as vehicles for emotion. In their view of it, the well-known "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's Rinaldo is no less urgent or poignant than "How All Living Things Breathe" from Glass' The Fall of the House of Usher. "The Encounter" from 1000 Airplanes on the Roof by Glass made for an exhilarating closing.
It was all very pleasant if not groundbreaking, though the cool precision of the proceedings was oddly riveting. It's probably safe to assume that despite the innovative aspects, they won't be taking Glass Handel on the road, at least not easily (though it does go to National Sawdust in Brooklyn this November). It can't be cheap or easy to replicate the experience elsewhere; in this cookie-cutter world, that in itself probably will only heighten, as time passes, the glow of having been there.
What the residual value really was Sunday night had no fewer than 264 different answers, which is the number of people in the audience. What you saw, and whether you thought that the visuals enhanced or distracted you from the meaning of the music, depended, by design, on where you happened to be and when.
I saw no more than two minutes of the Ivory video. Eight others by other videomakers followed, but because I was soon evicted to the next station, I never saw them.
Were Condo's broad, black strokes a spontaneous response to the music, or unrelated? I arrived at that station after his glowing screen was nearly filled, so I can't know.
There is an aleatory joy to Glass Handel. Drawing meaning from elements as disparate as these is life in miniature. It means letting go of the illusion that you ever had much control to begin with.