Recording of the Week Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello sing Love Duets
Around five years ago, I was catching up with an old university friend who works as a rehearsal-pianist in Philadelphia, and he was rhapsodising about the wonderful work that goes on at the city's Academy of Vocal Arts (a finishing-school for outstanding young opera-singers which boasts such illustrious alumni as Joyce DiDonato and the veteran Wagner bass-baritone James Morris). The names of two recent graduates – an American soprano and tenor, who were also a real-life couple – kept cropping up: 'You want to watch out for Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello', he told me; 'you might not have heard of them in the UK yet, but they're going to be massive stars'.
Well, he was right: now married, the pair are currently singing in La Traviata at Covent Garden and have a gorgeous CD of love-duets just out on Warner Classics. When I first played the disc, a colleague asked if it was one of the historical Decca Most Wanted Recitals (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) and I can certainly see why: not only is there a beautiful golden vintage quality to both voices, but like those Decca collections this disc falls into two parts in terms of repertoire. The first two-thirds of the programme is made up of great Italian and French love-duets, mainly from works which the couple have performed together on stage (Violetta and Alfredo, the Duke and Gilda from Rigoletto, Faust and Marguerite and so on), but the last few tracks are favourites from Broadway musicals, which they sing with such charm and affection that the switch between genres feels entirely natural. (I love their witty sparring in the Guys & Dolls scene, and am crossing my fingers that someone casts them together in a West Side Story – they'd look and sound ideal!)
Their stage experience and personal rapport is just as evident in the opera scenes, and their voices complement each other wonderfully: the danger with operatic 'star-couples' is sometimes that one party ends up venturing into repertoire that isn't perhaps an ideal fit, but these two both have full-bodied lyric voices with plenty of 'ping', flexibility and height (as their simultaneous top Ds at the end of the Rigoletto excerpt will testify!)
I've come away with two personal favourites, the first being 'Esulti pur la barbara' from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore (in which the lovelorn Nemorino drinks the cheap red wine he's been sold as a love-potion and has a tipsy stand-off with his beloved Adina): the humour here's perfectly judged and never overplayed, and it acts as a lovely palate-cleanser amid the lush Romantic duets. The other is the opening track, the throbbing 'Saint-Sulpice' scene from Massenet's Manon, where the heroine tries (successfully!) to seduce the lover she betrayed away from the religious life which he's chosen in order to forget her. I had the pleasure of experiencing Pérez in this role in January, and it has to be one of the most intoxicating performances I've ever seen – this scene in particular was sung and acted with a scorching sensuality that comes across every bit as potently on disc.
This is a delightful calling-card from two exuberant and charismatic singers who are well worth further exploration. Tickets for that Traviata are like gold-dust, but thanks to the Royal Opera's cinema broadcast scheme, you may still be able to catch it – the performance on 20th May will be streamed live into cinemas and also (for free!) to a dozen public squares and parks around the UK. We at Presto have a little something planned to mark the occasion, so do watch this space!
Ailyn Pérez (soprano), Stephen Costello (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Patrick Summers
Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC