Tenors are a hot commodity in the world of opera — especially the tall, dark and handsome kind that we covet for those romantic leading roles. Without a good tenor, there would be no “La Bohème,” no “Roméo et Juliette,” no “La Traviata.” And sopranos, of which there is no shortage, would have to settle for the likes of dreary Colline and Papa Germont.
On Saturday night, Spivey Hall treated its patrons to one of those sought-after romantic leads, lyric tenor Charles Castronovo. Castronovo enjoys an active career singing in Europe and the United States. This summer alone, he’ll sing the role of Nero in “l’Incoronazione di Poppea” at the Teatro Real in Madrid and perform in “Il Postino” opposite Placido Domingo in Chile. He flew from London specifically for the Spivey Hall concert and was set to return immediately, as his wife, Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina, is engaged there singing the role of Gilda in Covent Garden’s production of “Rigoletto.”
It was unfortunate that, for all the frequent-flier miles he must have accumulated, Castronovo sang to a rather sparse audience — especially because his recital of Liszt, Rachmaninov and Manuel de Falla was simply delightful.
Castronovo’s voice is refined and possesses a baritonal quality in the lower and middle range. But that warmth and ease of production is consistent throughout the voice, even to the opulent B-flat he sang at the end of Rachmaninov’s “Floods of Spring.”
The recital began with a group of mélodie by Franz Liszt and set to texts by Victor Hugo. Castronovo’s tenor has a heroic quality at its essence, which was showcased with his rendition of “À une femme.” But he was also able to subdue that inherent gallantry in “Oh! quand je dors,” employing delicate phrasing and voce finta to create contrast in color and dynamics.
He offered a group of songs by Rachmaninov that aptly exemplified the interdependence of voice and piano. Pianist Ruta Lenciauskaite, a coach at the Opéra Garnier and elsewhere, made a powerful impact throughout the evening. She excelled during her “singing” of the tragic, descending motive within “Oh, never sing to me again,” Op. 4, No. 4, which occurs at the beginning and end of the song. And Lenciauskaite was the perfect foil during the rousing dialogue between the tenor and piano in “The Answer,” Op. 21, No. 1, which culminated in the cry “Ljubite! (Love conquers!)” and an impressive pianissimo high A for Castronovo.
The second half of the program was something altogether different. Castronovo loosened his tie, addressed the audience with lighthearted translations and sat down to jam with guitarist Taso Comanescu and guitarist and mandolin player Austin Grant. They performed Falla’s “Seven Spanish Popular Songs” and an extensive group of Neapolitan songs.
The “Seven Spanish Popular Songs” is a group of folk songs from various regions of Spain, including Murcia, Aragon and Andalusia. They are widely sung and, in fact, were performed just a few years ago by mezzo-soprano Joyce di Donato on the same stage. The ensemble was a bit rough and the arrangement for voice and two guitars dissatisfying in comparison with the extant piano and orchestral versions. Castronovo had to shepherd the young instrumentalists through the song group.
Nevertheless, every voice is best suited to one particular musical language, and it was in the music of the Italians — Egidio Pisano, Eduardo Di Capua, Salvatore Cardillo and others — that Castronovo was most at home, true to his Sicilian roots. Here, in these plaintive songs, which tell the story of a woman who has wronged her devoted lover, Castronovo serenaded his Atlanta audience, transporting us to Naples and the callous Caterina’s core ‘ngrato.