Specters and memories haunted Disney Concert Hall during Antony and the Johnson’s thrillingly beautiful performance Tuesday night. From the opening, a brooding cover of Julee Cruise and Angelo Baldementi’s “Mysteries of Love,” (from the soundtrack to “Blue Velvet”) where lovers “float and kiss/ forever in darkness” to the evening’s finale, “River of Sorrow,” a mournful ode to a friend who was found floating in the Hudson, Antony Hegarty’s androgynously tremulous voice mined a deep vein of suffering and strength, fighting to keep a sob in the back of his throat.
In between, dead boys become objects of love, the rapture is turned into a lush ballad and a man who wishes to be transported to another world can only think of every corporeal thing he will miss. Backed by a 19-piece orchestra that included members of his band, the Johnsons, Antony crafted a carefully modulated 90-minute set that turned his heart-on-my-sleeve chamber pop into deeply felt and beautifully arranged art song.
To perform the program, half of which was drawn from “The Crying Light,” due early next year from Asthematic Kitty, and which will be repeated tonight at New York’s Apollo Theater, Antony transformed himself into an old-fashioned, if somewhat reticent, diva. He wore a floor-length white, almost translucent silk dress, with a white knitted shawl draping his shoulders, standing in silhouette or in dim amber light. (The lighting would get brighter as the show went on, with the singer only appearing in full spotlight for the set’s penultimate song “Everything Is New”). He barely said a word from the stage until the encore; he would either stand almost stock still while singing or pose in ways that made him look like a Greek statue.
The orchestrations, by Antony and composer Nico Muhly and ably conducted by Johnsons member Rob Moose, balanced their modernist vocabulary with romantic flourishes. (Moose was a last-minute substitution for James Holmes, who was unable to enter the country due to a problem with his visa).
For all the heightened emotion in Antony’s vocals — a surprise cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” became an aching plea — the evening was almost religious in its desire for peace and beauty. In a world where pain, sadness and intolerance seem to be around every corner, this perf holds out community and love as a counterbalance. And it held the sold out aud rapt: a pause in the middle of “(I Fell in Love With a) Dead Boy” seemed to last an eternity. It was a moment that could easily have fallen flat, but the room remained silent, listeners on the edge of their seats.