When Singing Verdi, Perfection Is No Substitute for Passion


When Singing Verdi, Perfection Is No Substitute for Passion


New York Times Review

When Singing Verdi, Perfection Is No Substitute for Passion
Stephen Costello and Tamara Wilson Show Opposing Approaches

Young American opera singers have long faced the same bum rap as some other American products. They’ve been thought to be well tooled but inauthentic, genial but ultimately impersonal. While they’re as well trained as any musicians in the world, their smooth versatility is said to come across as anonymous onstage.

There are ample exceptions to prove the limits of this mixed reputation, yet it persists. And in the rising tenor Stephen Costello’s performance in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon, the audience received a demonstration of the stereotypical young American opera singer that was almost too perfect to be believed.

While Mr. Costello was supposed to sing Alfredo in “La Traviata” for the first time at the Met on Dec. 11, he was suddenly struck with an unexplained illness that evening, after the conductor, Marco Armiliato, had taken the podium but before the music had begun. Francesco Demuro eventually stepped in, and the performance went on.

Mr. Costello’s condition evidently passed, and he sang his four remaining scheduled performances, the last of which was Saturday. (Mr. Demuro, as previously planned, has taken over the role of Alfredo through Jan. 24.)

Mr. Costello’s voice has clarity, fluidity and ease through its range. At the high end, the tone takes on an appealingly grainy, subtle shimmer, like the metallic halo of sound that remains as a gong finishes ringing.

The performance was accomplished — and blank. And in no repertory is that kind of polished facelessness as great a liability as it is in Verdi. His operas obviously ask for accurate vocalism, but pleasant singing will take you only so far if it doesn’t seem to be permeated by emotional — perhaps even moral — truth.

In the first act, Mr. Costello’s phrasing during “Un dì, felice” was so square that you wondered why Violetta was even attracted to Alfredo. His surging aria “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” lacked spirit or flair, and he revealed little of the character’s shock and sense of disgrace later in the second act. Throughout the opera, Mr. Costello’s voice was penetrating but without personality.

As Alfredo’s father, the young American baritone Quinn Kelsey suffered from a version of the same dichotomy. He sang with booming, round, confident tone and radiated a general vagueness.

The Met’s stark Willy Decker production isn’t easy on the men, focusing the audience’s sympathies on Violetta (here the bright-voiced, affecting Marina Rebeka), but that fails to explain why both Germonts, father and son, were so sonorously cipher-like.

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