Fort Worth — Caruso in Cowtown! Who knew?
Yes, the great Italian tenor gave a recital in Fort Worth in 1920, right before his untimely demise one year later at the age of 48. The great tenor’s appearance in Fort Worth, a backwater at the time, is even more unbelievable when you learn that the concert was held at the Cowtown Coliseum in the historic Stockyards.
At the time, this was the only venue in town that could hold a large audience, so the rodeo venue was appropriated. When Caruso saw the dirt floor, he reportedly balked at first, but went on with the show when, much to his surprise, he found the acoustics to be excellent. On April 7, tenor Stephen Costello and pianist Stephen Carey, once again exploited the rustic Coliseum’s acoustics to recreate Caruso’s recital.
This concert was part of a fundraising gala for the Forth Worth Opera. Like similar galas, the evening consisted of a served dinner, concert and after party. For those who didn’t want the dinner part, a ticket to the concert itself was available, at a greatly reduced price. Many took advantage of that offer and filled the stands.
Patrons arrived, as requested, in traditional gala dress: men in tuxedos and women in glamorous gowns. Some of the men added western wear accents, such as bolo ties and cowboy hats. Many wore western boots. Some were not in such fancy formal wear, either by choice or because they failed to read the invitation’s fine print about requested dress (such as this writer who showed up clad in shabby chic).
As befits an opera gala, the dinner was an elegant affair offering an amusing contrast to the venue, which usually features thundering hooves, steer roping and bucking broncos, hot dogs and beer. Rodeos are not about food, although there is an occasional chuck wagon race.
The gala set up elegantly bedecked tables of ten, right on the carefully raked, and cleaned, arena. The dirt floor IS more suited to human vs. animal combats than concerts but the tables added an incongruous touch of pizazz Instead of jeans and chaps, a regiment of waiters wore crisp white uniforms. They served the courses with a choreographic flair. (Early arrivals observed them practice the moves.) During the dinner itself, they were as attentive as waiters in a five-star restaurant.
One of the nonmusical highlights of the evening was a cleverly prepared printed menu. As opposed to a fancy restaurant’s, featuring a string of mouth-watering adjectives, this one reveled in its unpretentiousness. The first course was modestly listed as “salad.” The second course promised “steak,” “green beans” and “baked potato.” Dessert proffered “cheesecake.” The food itself, was surprisingly good.
As you might expect in a place where the steaks are usually still on the hoof, the steaks, at least those at my table, were flavorful and tender. They were prepared to an inoffensive medium that appeared to suit most everyone.
Costello took the stage to warm applause. He is a local favorite. In fact, he made his professional debut, with the Fort Worth Opera as Rodolfo in La bohème in March 2006. From there, his career is the stuff of dreams, with performances in all the major opera houses in the world. In Dallas, he sang a leading role in the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Sheer’s Moby-Dick. He just recently appeared in TDO’s production of Massenet’s romantic opera, Manon.
His program consisted of selections that Caruso might have sung, as well as a few of his signature arias. Costello’s voice is lighter than Caruso’s almost baritone-sounding tenor. But both tenors have thrilling high notes and the concert’s selections gave Costello lots of opportunity to display his gleaming high “c,” such as in Che gelida manina from Puccini’s La bohème.
Costello also took on one of Caruso’s most famous arias, “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. While Costello would never be cast in the role, at least not yet, he did a fine job with the demanding aria. In fact, it was a pleasant experience to hear it sung with a lightened voice.
On the down side, in some of the selections Costello chose to sing out on on several high notes that are clearly marked to be sung quietly. The fact that most tenors do the same thing is not a valid excuse. More tenors these days are floating some lovely high notes in such passages. In addition, he has a habit of scooping up to some high notes, but once there, they are so glorious that all is forgiven.
Some Italian songs by Francesco Tosti are repertoire that Caruso and Costello share. This is not a surprise because every one with even a reasonable facsimile of a tenor voice has a shy at them. Costello knocked them out of the park. He sang “Ideale,” “Non t’amo piú,” and the three-hanky “Goodbye,” a lover’s final farewell, which was all the rage in the Victorian era.
Costello sang two encores. One was “Younger than Springtime” from South Pacific. The other was an a cappella version of “Danny Boy.” This song is a ballad written in 1912 by an Englishman and sung to an existing Irish folk song, "Londonderry Air.” There is a controversy about the sex of who should sing it. On its surface, it is a woman’s tearful farewell. When a male sings it, it is considered to be a father saying goodbye to a son going off to war. However, everyone sings it and few ponder its meaning. Costello’s version was an effective tug at the heartstrings.
Pianist Stephen Carey, who has impressed before, was a terrific partner. In addition to a solid technique, he has the one thing that cannot be taught: an innate instinct on how to accompany a singer. He is never too loud but always supportive. He is always on top of the text and precisely matches the singer’s phrasing.
Overall, the Fort Worth Opera and the team of Costello and Carey delivered a very satisfying evening of first-rate food and outstanding music. Caruso would have been pleased with their tribute.