Thursday’s SummerFest program, titled An Evening of Kurt Weill, was originally planned as a performance of Weill’s 1933 stage work The Seven Deadly Sins, according to festival music director Inon Barnatan. That is until the overprotective Kurt Weill Foundation refused to give the La Jolla Music Society permission to present the work.In place of that well-intended foray into music history, Cécile McLorin Salvant and Anthony Roth Costanzo put together a scintillating revue that included a half dozen Weill songs and a dazzling array of other solos and duets that enchanted the audience at The Conrad. It might have been the unexpected chemistry of the two singers—the freewheeling jazz artist Salvant and the accomplished opera star Costanzo—or perhaps the ingenuity of the singers’ musical choices that made this program soar.
Whatever it was, the duo should bottle it and sell it—they could make a fortune.
In Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” from his now classic Three-Penny Opera, Salvant channeled Lotte Lenya and then put her own stamp on this macabre ballad, savoring the dark edge of Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Weill’s original German text.
Costanzo pumped up the sybaritic camp of “The Alabama Song” from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, egged on by the rousing instrumental accompaniment of the dozen Musicians from the Knights under the direction of Eric Jacobsen.
Salvant wisely chose pianist Sullivan Fortner to accompany her in Weill’s diffident “Barbara Song,” also from Three-Penny Opera, because the pianist’s tempestuous interludes only sharpened the song’s cynicism. The duo gave a richly detailed account of “Somehow I Never Could Believe” from Weill’s 1946 American opera Street Scene. Salvant chose an apt array of vocal colors to unpack the subtle contrasts of Langston Hughes’ lyrics.
When Weill left Germany in 1933 as the Nazi’s took over the reins of government, he first landed in Paris, where he wrote a few songs for a popular cabaret singer Lys Gauty, including “Je ne t’aime pas.” Costanzo’s take underscored the lyrics’ agony, hardly a surprising characteristic since at the time Weill wrote the song, he and Lenya had temporarily separated.
Leaving the Weill canon, Salvant and Costanzo’s choices left few stones unturned. Costanzo wallowed in the louche decadence of Francis Poulenc’s chanson “Hôtel” from his song cycle Banalités and created a stirring mini-drama with Schubert’s lied “Der Erlkönig, in which his bright countertenor sang the parts of the frightened young lad and the alluring evil spirit (the Earl King), while his baritone register portrayed the role of the reassuring father. The lied’s usual piano accompaniment was craftily orchestrated for Musicians from the Knights to chilling effect. With the orchestra’s brassy support, Costanzo launched into an extravagant account of Irving Berlin’s hit song from the Roaring Twenties “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” In his only offering from traditional opera, Costanzo gave a heart-rending account of the aria “Ah, Belinda” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
I was impressed with Salvant’s own song “Thus in Vain,” an excerpt from her larger opus Ogresse. Her moving ballad juxtaposes love and angst in generous themes that arc over a ground bass.
The two singers joyfully engaged in several duets, from a charming 17th-century air de coeur by Michel Lambert “D’un feu secret,” to selections from the Great American Songbook: Richard Rodgers’ “Where or When” and George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Although the singers’ voices covered a similar range, their different colors provided welcome contrast and balance. Her voice projected greater warmth in the lower range, and his countertenor bloomed brightly at the top of his register. If their schedules would allow, they could take their act on the road with great success.
This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society as part of SummerFest 2022 on Thursday, August 18, 2022 in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla.