Review: Opera's Latest 'Love Couple' Fails to Heat Up Duets Album

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Why does operatic press agentry thrive on “Love Couples?” The phenomenon is not new: soprano/tenor pairs, when of roughly equal abilities and romantically involved, have made waves for centuries. Donizetti wrote Don Pasquale for Giulia Grisi and Mario (who enjoyed a massive 1854 U.S. tour) and Tchaikovsky tailored Queen of Spades and Iolanta for Medea Mei and Nikolai Figner. The closing days of 78 recording welcomed still-haunting duets by husband and wife Pia Tassinari and Ferruccio Tagliavini; Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras—not married, at least not to one another—caused a frisson when paired in LP’s last years.

The "Love Couple" that broke the bank in the CD era was Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna: the tempestuous Romanian and Franco-Sicilian couple sometimes (as with their wedding by Mayor Giuliani) seemed to be entirely plugged into the pursuit of Taylor/Burton-style headlines, but they moved a lot of product—plus, their joint performances certainly raised the temperature. Whatever their shortcomings, the now-divorced duo both offered technical assurance and stylistic distinction.

Such qualities as yet only sporadically mark live performances and the new CD offering of the talented, photogenic American couple advanced by the industry—not least the award-granting Richard Tucker Foundation, who used to honor complete vocalists like Renée Fleming, Matthew Polenzani and Joyce diDonato. Chicago-born soprano Ailyn Pérez and Philadelphian tenor Stephen Costello met at his native city’s Academy of Vocal Arts, married, and have since forged respectable careers now going international.

London arts writers—as opposed to critics—seized the bait, with the London Times spouting nonsense about "the Jay-Z and Beyoncé" of opera and—essentially—celebrating their marketability: "They're modern, they're hot and their marital status is taking them beyond opera's heartland into Vanity FairThe Huffington Post and YouTube ubiquity." Yes, but...

Pérez, lovely and charming onstage, shows a lyric voice of great, billowing beauty. She must negotiate florid passages with care and—more seriously, and made evident in virtually every cut on the couple’s new album—her voice wavers and turns hard in high passages taken at full volume. Costello, always competent, has a more reliably produced instrument if—to my ears—one of less inherent charm and beauty than his wife’s. Stylistically, he’s more comfortable than she in the four non-inflammatory duets from musicals. But Pérez has the laudable gift of vivid verbal characterization: her Manon, Violetta and Gilda sound like entirely different people.

On the CD, the dutiful Costello comes to life principally in a very enjoyable duet from Elisir d’Amore and the technically imperfect but very heartfelt first colloquy from La traviata. For Mascagni’s ravishing “Cherry Duet” from L’amico Fritz, better seek out Gheorghiu and Alagna—or Tassinari and Tagliavini's unforgettable magic.

"Love Duets" (Warner Classics)
Ailyn Pérez, soprano & Stephen Costello, tenor
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Patrick Summers, conductor
Available at Arkivmusic.com