The marriage of classical and popular music often makes for an uneasy alliance, although the fault's usually in the execution, not the original concept.
In the case of For the Stars, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello establish a harmonious relationship, thanks more to the adaptability of the pop singer-songwriter than that of the opera singer.
Backed by electric classicists Fleshquartet, the adventurous repertoire trawls the songbooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys (two from Pet Sounds), Abba, Tom Waits and Ron Sexsmith, plus Costello originals and oldies. The latter especially provide lush settings for von Otter and include the opening "No Wonder" (featuring the Attractions' Steve Nieve on grandiose keyboards), "Baby Plays Around" and "I Want to Vanish," as well as the atmospheric, closing title duet with Costello.
Among several magical moments are a luminous version of Abba's "Like an Angel" (with Benny Anderssen on piano and Synclavier), Kate McGarrigle's superbly stripped-back "Go Leave," the Irish-colored "Green Song" (by and featuring composer/cellist Svante Henryson) and a combination of Tom Waits' "Broken Bicycles" and Paul McCartney's "Junk."
It's a gentle, relaxing experience — disarming, even — and the Swede's tonal clarity contrasts nicely with Costello's rough trade vocals. But von Otter could loosen up a bit more. She's not always sure when to rely on technique and when to draw on the gut instinct of a jazz/pop performer for soulful, passionate expression. At least this opera diva sounds more at home among popular musicians than most of her peers (save for Broadway-savvy Julia Migenes).