It all started with Anthony Roth Costanzo’s plan to bring together Baroque and contemporary vocal music, juxtaposing works from the two periods when a countertenor type of voice was truly in vogue. Pairing some of Handel’s most famous arias with lesser known Philip Glass snippets, reorchestrated for the occasion, was a brilliant idea indeed. Glass’ minimalism, lacking the soaring quality of Handel’s best music, matched the latter in terms of using such ear-pleasing mechanisms as repetitions and musical embroidery.

In order to promote the ensuing recording, Costanzo decided to take an unconventional route and conceived, with the help of friends, acquaintances and chance, a “happening”, including contributions from several luminaries specialized in different artistic fields. Glass Handel was first presented at the Barnes Foundation under the aegis of Opera Philadelphia’s O18 festival and, on Monday evening, had its New York première in the nave of the St John the Divine Cathedral.

George Condo, of “artificial realism” fame, was invited to create a black and white painting on canvas while backlit, so only the nascent lines and the shadow of his hands were visible. He was supposed to produce a distinct work for every performance and he dutifully fulfilled his promise – filling a big a canvas with his trademark, Picasso inspired, creatures – in exactly the allotted time! On one side of Condo’s workspace, centrally placed, next to the soloist and the orchestra, a little platform hosted four dancers: Daniel Applebaum, Patricia Delgado, Ricky Ubeda and Zoe Zien. In this very limiting space, they executed, mostly one by one, the somehow illustrative movements designed by Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s young Resident Choreographer. 

On the opposite side, there was a screen on which nine “opera music videos” – each associated with one of the performed numbers, and each attributed to a different author – were projected. For example, the first aria, “Inumano fratel…” from Handel’s Tolemeo was paired with a film by James Ivory and Pix Talarico, showing an armor-clad Costanzo wandering through a landscape of meadows and rivers. To illustrate Glass’ Liquid Days, Mark Romanek's video featured a street dancer (Ron Myles) under a highway in Los Angeles. Tilda Swinton and Sandro Kopp “asked” several cute dogs to rhythmically frolic on the sand while Constanzo dispatched, with the greatest of ease, the difficult coloratura in “Rompo i lacci” from Flavio

But that wasn’t all. As part of the Cath Brittan/ Visionaire overall design, an army of “people movers”, using some sort of dollies, wheeled members of the public, sitting in their black chairs, from one side of the performance space to the opposite one. It proved to be a sporadically noisy, distracting procession. The important detail here is that the spectators were not meant to watch both the videos and the dancers, but to successively be exposed to both. In Costanzo’s words, “people would move around the space without leaving their chairs, and they would encounter different “stations”, each an embodiment of the live music in a different discipline”. From my travelling seat, I could only view the first videos and get close to the dancers only at the very end.

In the center of all this whirlwind, Costanzo remained an image of calm and self-confidence. He discarded, one by one, pink gloves, a huge red robe with oversized sleeves and a striking blue garment, finishing dressed in a black-and-white shirt, echoing Condo’s painting, all the costumes being conceived by Raf Simmons, Chief Creative Officer for Calvin Klein. 

Able to sing with rare intensity and impeccable technique, Anthony Roth Costanzo is one of the finest countertenors active today. He was supposed to be the unifying factor of the performance, but he wasn’t always able to surpass the numerous distractions. His countertenor imbued with color the austere harmonies of “In the Arc of Your Mallet” from Glass’ Monsters of Grace. Accompanied by the experienced instrumentalists of The Knights, under the baton of Eric Jacobson, Costanzo displayed the almost supernatural glory of his upper register in several of his melodically-related Handel calling cards: “Pena tiranna” (Amadigi di Gaula) and “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Rinaldo). In a space that wasn’t necessarily favorable to his instrument, he brought forward a wealth of nuances in “Vivi tiranno” (Rodelinda).

The hour-long circus reminded everyone that, in Handel’s time, opera performances were indeed extravagant spectacles, meant to dazzle the public, and not only musically. Clearly, it was also a means of attracting a public that wouldn’t be otherwise interested in opera or classical music. If the intention was though to present a 21st-century Gesamtkunstwerk the Gesamt attribute was missing.