Fair play to Anthony Roth-Costanzo: the juxtaposition of Handel and Glass – dominant composers in the American countertenor’s career – is a good one. Chugging rhythms and insistent ostinatos draw out similarities between Baroque da capo arias and American minimalism, but provide contrast too; an ear-tickling playlist that Costanzo has released as a very effective album. To promote that album, a stage show was created, premiering at Opera Philadelphia in 2018. Tweaked and twerked, Glass–Handel arrived at the BBC Proms in the grungy, industrial space of Printworks London.

Anthony Roth Costanzo
© BBC | Mark Allan

Harmsworth Quays was once the largest printing factory in Western Europe, churning out rags such as The Daily Mail and Evening Standard until 2012. Five years later, it was converted into a nightclub… and now a Proms venue. Handel goes clubbing? I fear this will not be a “rave” review. 

Glass–Handel is billed as a “multidisciplinary project” that brings together “music, dance, theatre, video, audio soundscapes and haute couture”. That’s a whole lot of colliding disciplines and music seemed way down the pecking order. No set list, no physical programme, no surtitles.

Escorts with lightsabers guided Costanzo through the Prommers to the three stages; dancers, choreographed by Justin Peck, writhed and whirled on the two smaller ones. A “nature beatboxer” provided New Age ambience between numbers – birds, the sea and what sounded like a snoring dragon – while Glenn Brown provided live painting in silhouette throughout the show. Can you tell what it is yet? A soldier wearing a helmet with an extravagant ostrich plume, as it turned out. Costanzo’s own extravagant plumage, costumed by Raf Simons, started out as scarlet robes and long mauve gloves, shed to reveal two further gowns beneath.

Anthony Roth Costanzo
© BBC | Mark Allan

And videos. Lots of abstract videos, each by a different director. Costanzo featured as a medieval knight in James Ivory’s unintentionally Pythonesque accompaniment to an aria from Tolomeo. “Vivi, tiranno” (Rodelinda) was illustrated by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari’s fetishistic film of surreal imagery, including jelly, a woman juggling spaghetti in her tee-shirt and a gold-sprayed lobster. I quite liked Tilda Swinton’s playful spaniels bouncing on a beach to “Rompo i lacci” (Flavio), but then I quite like playful spaniels. 

As Costanzo sang a beautiful account of “Pena tiranna” (Amadigi), caressing legato lines as he cradled a dancer in his arms, I suddenly realised that while one of the world’s top countertenors was pouring his heart out live in front of us, everyone between me and the stage was glued instead to the video, depicting men strapped to the outside of slowly revolving giant hamster wheels. How did we become so addicted to digital screens? 

Anthony Roth Costanzo
© BBC | Mark Allan

But the music? Costanzo’s is quite an unusual countertenor, more soprano than alto, with a grainy texture. It is a powerful instrument, with a wide dynamic range and terrific agility. Because of the peripatetic nature of the show, there was amplification which negated many of these qualities, but there’s no denying the stamina required to perform this set twice in one day. From the original CD, we didn’t get “Ombra mai fu” nor the Hymn to the Sun from Akhnaten, but we did get a Glass world premiere in the form of No more, you petty spirits – Jupiter’s intervention in Cymbeline – consisting of a long melisma before a more inistent ostinato introduces Shakespeare's text.  

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Karen Kamensek and the English National Opera Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

The English National Opera Orchestra and Karen Kamensek provided faithful accompaniment and will be reunited with Costanzo when Phelim McDermott’s terrific production of Akhnaten returns this season. There are plenty of multidisciplinary visuals going on there too – jugglers! – but where those served Glass’ music, here they were just distractions.

**111