Perez & Costello: Love Duets (CD review)

Ailyn Perez, soprano; Stephen Costello, tenor; Patrick Summers, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646334858.

First, a word about the principals: The Associated Press called soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello “America’s fastest-rising husband-and-wife opera stars,” and the New York Times praised them for their “palpable chemistry.” They were both honored as winners of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award (Costello in 2009 and Pérez in 2012), and on the present debut album for Warner Classics they perform a selection of love duets from opera and musical theater.

The program includes eleven selections: “Toi! Vous!...N’est-ce plus ma main” from Massenet’s Manon; “Suzel, buon di!” from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz; “Signor ne principe--E il sol dell’anima...Addio! speranze” from Verdi’s Rigoletto; “Caro elisier!...esulti pur la Barbara” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore; “Il se fait tard!” from Gounod’s Faust; “Un di felice” from Verdi’s La traviata; “O soave fanciulla” from Puccini’s La boheme; “One hand, one heart” from Bernstein’s West Side Story; “If I loved you” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel; “I’ll know” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls; concluding with “And this is my beloved” from Wright and Forrest’s Kismet. Maestro Patrick Summers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra ably support the duo.

Anyway, what could be more appropriate for two young stars in love, especially for their first album, than a collection of love duets? Of course, they’re both in fine voice; there’s not much question about that unless you’re a fervent opera fan and have an obsession for particular kinds of operatic voices. For most of us, they sound just fine, if perhaps not yet in the superstar class where a tenor and soprano can go virtually anywhere with their talents. Let’s say that with Perez and Costello, it’s close enough.

As usual with these things, the opening number sets the tone. Both singers display a tremendous vocal range as well as a wide emotional sweep. Obviously, these love duets require a fair amount of dramatic skill as well as vocal talent, and here Perez and Costello shine. Of course, like any subjective talents, their voice and dramatic skills remain open to interpretation. One listener might find them impressive, another satisfactory, and still another annoying. I didn't find any distracting mannerisms in their singing or acting skills, but I'm no expert in things operatic.

There is certainly nothing halfhearted about their presentations. They belt out the songs in splendid form, perhaps too intensely at times; but surely you can't fault their enthusiasm. The two opening numbers, for instance, by Massenet and Mascagni, seem almost extravagantly expressive. While the singers convey the big, dramatic moments effectively, they don't always provide a commensurate degree of lyricism in the softer passages. But, again, this is just how the songs struck me personally; other listeners will surely find the presentations both moving and exciting.

And so it goes through the classical operatic numbers. I particularly enjoyed the playfulness in their rendering of the first Verdi selection and the passion of the second Verdi item and the Puccini.

It was with the final tracks, the four Broadway selections, that I had any initial hesitation. I worried at first that Perez and Costello’s operatically trained voices might be too heavy for the lighter stage roles. They swept aside my concerns, however, offering up perfectly enjoyable versions of all four songs. Their voices are perhaps bigger than we might find on the popular stage and, thus, take a moment's getting used to, but once attuned to them, they easily win us over. OK, maybe the Guys and Dolls number requires a stretch to imagine, chiefly Costello as a colorful Damon Runyon character; but, hey, if Brando could almost pull it off in the movie version of the play, I guess you can get used to anybody. The closing Kismet selection is possibly the best of the Broadway items because it comes closest to grand opera, anyway.

Producer Stephen Johns and engineer Philip Burwell recorded the music in December 2013 at Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London. The sound is slightly aggressive; that is, the frequency balance favors the upper midrange, making some high notes a little shrill and glassy, occasionally even fierce. The voices are out front, as we might expect, the orchestral accompaniment a bit recessed and a tad soft. It sounds, in fact, a bit more like pop-music sound than it does classical, the latter usually a tad more natural. Still, given the nature of the album, that's probably not a bad thing; the sound will complement a lot of home playback systems and car radios and no doubt appeal to folks used to listening to popular music on TV and iPods. I don't mean to be too critical here, but for the ultimate in sonic realism, you might want to look elsewhere. This is just good, clean, in-your-face sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa