At the beginning of Glass Handel, a multimedia extravaganza presented by the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, I watched a video projected on a large screen, depicting an armored knight moving through fields and rivers, while turning my head every now and then to watch Costanzo – resplendent in billowing crimson robe and purple gloves – sing an excerpt from Handel’s Tolomeo on a stage some distance away. A painting unfolded live on a giant scrim behind Costanzo and accompanying orchestra The Knights. At the far end of the performance space, red-clad dancers moved sensuously on an elevated platform.
Creating an “experience” for the audience is ever more popular with classical-music impresarios, who recently have produced events involving sleeping or dancing during a concert, and staged performances in unlikely venues, such as a crypt. Glass Handel, Costanzo’s hour-long interdisciplinary installation, seemed an apt metaphor for our over-stimulated era, when it can be difficult to focus on the event at hand while distracted by a barrage of enticing offerings elsewhere.
There was no need, however, for my eyes to be darting as often as they were between the various happenings in this production—a collaboration between Opera Philadelphia, National Sawdust, Cath Brittan, and the art-fashion-media company Visionaire, which received its premiere in Philadelphia in September. Audience mobility was a crucial element of Costanzo’s concept, and I had a chance to experience all three performance areas up close.
At the start of the event, a phalanx of people movers appeared, resembling Star Trek officers in their red turtle necks and black trousers. They marched solemnly around the space, wheeling seated audience members on single-chair trolleys. It looked quite creepy, as if we were enacting a sci-fi movie and watching docile earthlings being carted off by outer-galaxy personnel. I was wheeled away barely a minute into the performance from my perch in the middle station, where the silhouette of the American artist George Condo was occasionally visible as he worked live behind a giant backlit scrim nestled under a towering arch.
Like a sophisticated Etch-a-Sketch, the lines on the canvas quickly morphed into a stunning series of black-and-white Picasso-esque images of Costanzo. Those images evoked Condo’s colorful cover illustration for ARC, Costanzo’s recent album, which juxtaposed music by Handel and Philip Glass.
Costanzo, who as a countertenor sings both Baroque and contemporary repertory, has said, “Handel defined me. Glass changed me.” During the live performance he segued seamlessly between the 18th and 21st centuries, as did The Knights, deftly conducted by Eric Jacobsen. The vast cathedral’s acoustics are not ideal, however. It often was hard to hear Costanzo in his lower register, but his always expressive voice sounded clarion in its upper range.
There was silence between the musical selections, which also included Glass’s “Liquid Days,” which I listened to while watching a video by Mark Romanek featuring a young man in orange athletic pants. He gazes intently at the camera before dancing beneath an underpass, his intricate movements choreographed in entrancing synthesis with Glass’s music.
Next came a quirky video by Tilda Swinton and Sandro Kopp, in which dogs romp on a beach in slow motion tandem with the aria “Rompo i lacci”—the lighthearted visuals a strange contrast to the tormented words sung by a lovestruck character in Handel’s Flavio. Before being carted off to watch the dancers, I saw one final video, which accompanied Handel’s “Lascia Ch’io Pianga.” The lyrics “Let me weep” unfolded to images of a woman’s stricken face, mascara running and eyes ghoulish.
Costanzo discarded his red robe for what looked a pale blue couture hospital gown with a Glass Handel logo inscribed at the bottom. All the performers wore costumes by Raf Simons, Chief Creative Officer of Calvin Klein, who dressed the male dancers (Daniel Applebaum and Ricky Ubeda) in red briefs and fishnet tops with flamenco tassels. I was deposited in the front row to watch them, and enjoyed this part of the experience so much that I glanced over my shoulder a few times, reluctant to be carted away.
Patricia Delgado and Zoe Zien were similarly mesmerizing, their movements in turn balletic and athletic as they danced together and alone. During the mournful “Pena Tiranna” from Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula, Applebaum, a New York City Ballet dancer, crouched briefly in a fetal position on the floor, before stretching out as Costanzo, his voice acutely expressive, slowly embraced one of the female dancers.
During Glass’s “How all Living Things Breathe” (from The Fall of the House of Usher) I was transfixed as Delgado moved in silence before a solo harp began playing the hypnotic opening of the piece. Her movements were resigned, assertive, robotic, and graceful, and conveyed a gamut of emotions. Indeed, for me, such moments proved the most moving part of the evening: I was immobile and focused on the arresting spectacle right in front of me.
Vivien Schweitzer is a music journalist, pianist, and author. Her new book, A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera, was published in September. She is a volunteer ESL and civics teacher at the Center for the Integration and Advancement of New Americans in Astoria.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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Video, dance, live-action painting—even moving seats and craned necks—were part of what Vivien Schweitzer experienced witnessing Anthony Roth Costanzo's 'Glass Handel' at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.