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Appearing nightly

I suspect most New York City opera-lovers had long since given up hope that the fascinating soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci would ever return to their city. But in the spring of 2102 after an absence of over 13 years, she presented a rapturously received recital of Italian songs at Alice Tully Hall. Wasting no time, Lincoln Center invited her to bring her one-woman performance piece Era la notte to this year’s White Light Festival which presented the US premiere Wednesday evening at the Rose Theater. Conceived and directed by Juliette Deschamps, it featured Antonacci performing four challenging monologues by early-to-mid-17th century Italian composers accompanied by seven members of the French period orchestra Les Siécles.

Long a favorite of mine, Antonacci, still glamorous in her early 50s, remains one of the more compelling, yet controversial singers on the international opera scene. In the early 90s, she specialized in Rossini, singing many of the roles written for Isabella Colbran: Semiramide, Ermione, Elisabetta, Desdemona in Otello, Elcia in Mosè in Egitto and Elena in La Donna del Lago. Her earliest US stage appearance was as Ninetta in a Philadelphia La Gazza Ladra in 1990.

As the 21st century dawned, she turned more to French opera, perhaps spawned by her triumph as Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Châtelet in Paris in 2003.

I was lucky enough to attend that superb Troyens: one of my favorite operas indelibly performed. Antonacci’s haunted prophetess dominated, her dark, doomed soprano gripping in its tortured intensity. Cassandre has since become a signature role, repeated in Geneva, Tanglewood, and Covent Garden; La Scala is due to see it in April 2014, and it’s rumored for her return to San Francisco where she long ago sang Adalgisa to Carol Vaness’ Norma. Rachel in La Juive, Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, the title role of Fauré’s Pénélope, Charlotte in Werther, Brunehilde in Magnard’s Sigurd and, of course, Carmen have followed, with Chimène in Massenet’s Le Cid opposite Roberto Alagna whispered for the future at the Bastille.

Yet throughout her career Antonacci has also consistently shone in baroque and classical music. Memorably opening the 1996 La Scala season in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s legendary production of Gluck’s Armide conducted by Riccardo Muti,

…she has also performed that composer’s Alceste in both French and Italian: it’s unfortunate that she has recently withdrawn from the new Krysztof Warlikowski Alceste scheduled for February at Madrid’s Teatro Real.

Mozart’s Donna Elvira and Fiordiligi, as well as Paisiello’s Nina

…have been important roles, as have her two great Handel heroines: an unconventional Rodelinda at Glyndebourne, and a dazzling Machiavellian empress in David McVicar’s production of Agrippina which, conducted by René Jacobs, was the toast of Brussels and Paris.

However, early 17th century Italian music in particular continues to remain a significant part of her music-making. How many other artists have sung both Poppea and Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea? While she has performed Poppea more often, her power-drunk, dreadlocked Nerone was a special highlight of the McVicar production I saw at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 2004, especially when in league with Patrizia Ciofi’s Poppea: what a rare joy to hear two native Italian singers relishing Busenello’s pungent text.

My first live exposure to Antonacci was her New York City debut in February 1999, a concert with Accademia Bizantina at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Strikingly, three of the four pieces that make up Era la Notte were also performed at that concert: Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna” and “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” along with Pietro Giramo’s “Lamento della Pazza.”

Back then ago Antonacci simply sang those challenging monologues concert style; in Era la Notte, clad mostly in an elaborate white gown by Christian Lacroix, she enacted them, along with Barbara Strozzi’s “Lagrime mie,” against Cécile Degos’s wall of blazing long white tapers to the back of the mostly bare stage where a pool of water ran across the front. The small instrumental ensemble was positioned to the right of the playing space, and, in addition to accompanying the singing, played the six instrumental works by Biagio Marini.

After a short prelude, Antonacci, her voice still a bit rough, entered for the Giramo portraying a woman driven mad by love. She masterfully conveyed the pazza’s ever-shifting moods, beautifully differentiating the six iterations of the opening strophe that dot the piece:

Chi non mi conosce
Dirà che la mia
Sia vera pazzia
Che lieta mi fa.

Ma tutt’ E’furore,
Effetto d’Amore,
Effetto d’Amore,
Ch’al core mi sta

Her moving performance of Ariadne’s aching lament over Theseus’s abandonment (the only surviving extract from Monteverdi’s opera L’Arianna) demonstrated how far the art of singing this music has evolved.

The Strozzi, while the least interesting piece, did provide rare moments of melody.

But, after discarding the gown and reentering in a black tunic and pants with her hair pulled back, Antonacci ended the program with one of her specialties–a piece she has sung with both Muti and Claudio Abbado–Monteverdi’s great “Combattimento” which narrates the story of two disguised lovers—Tancredi and Clorinda–who meet on the battlefield and fight resulting in Clorinda’s sad death. So vivid was Antonacci’s story-telling that one dared not take one’s eyes off of her to glance at the titles high above the stage.

Since it’s written for baritone (or low tenor) with lines for a soprano Clorinda and tenor Tancredi, Antonacci’s appropriation of the work is unusual: I’ve never otherwise heard of the piece being sung by a woman or as a solo. That she has sung it successfully for much of her career speaks to her sovereign mastery of Monteverdi’s musical language.

One oddity was the use of violins in a piece normally only accompanied by continuo; however, the string realization used wasn’t overly jarring.

All of Antonacci’s most striking qualities were on display throughout Wednesday evening: the searing vocal and dramatic commitment, the uniquely smoky timbre joined to an arresting connection to the text. Those looking for perfect, ear-soothing singing might have come away unsatisfied: her sometimes raw voice has never been conventionally beautiful, but it has always served its mistress’s art. It was surprising to hear how little her voice has changed since 1995 when she recorded Monteverdi’s “Lasciatemi morire” and the Giramo lament, along with Antonio Cesti’s “Lamento della Madre Ebrea (!)”.

I hadn’t listened to that CD in a long while and was struck how the top of the voice was already then problematic. On Wednesday anything remotely high was quickly abandoned, but those 17th century pieces nearly always fell within her most evocative middle voice, although there were signs that she’s increasingly building up her lower voice. While Antonacci describes herself as a soprano, it’s clear that her choices have always been dictated by her recalcitrant upper register. Many of her parts are out-and-out mezzo roles or those ascribed to a Falcon soprano.

While Era la Notte finally provided NYC audiences with a bewitching chance to sample Antonacci’s formidable acting talents, it must be said that the evening proved an occasionally monochrome affair. The four vocal pieces were much too alike in both musical style and emotional content. Except for a few moments in the Strozzi, they were pure recitative, without much melodic interest. Although a dramatic tour-de-force, it felt longer than an hour, perhaps due to the relentlessly dark, mournful mood. Deschamps argues that one should think of the monologues as the utterances of a single character, but neither her dramaturgy nor the choice of music proved convincing.

Much has been made of Antonacci’s having never appeared at the Met, yet it’s not really surprising. Other than Carmen (which she only took on in 2006), her repertoire has never included operas in the standard repertoire: the Met has never had a Cherubini Medea or Bellini Romeo on its stage, for example. Her most significant Verdi role is, after all, the Marchesa in Un Giorno di Regno, a portrayal preserved on two competing DVDs.

However, the MET did miss a great opportunity last season: instead of Barbara Frittoli’s blowsy Vitellia, we might have had a flamingly intense Antonacci portrayal that would surely have held its own opposite the sterling Sesto of Elina Garanca, as it did in Paris in 2006.

One hopes Lincoln Center will continue to invite Antonacci to New York: I pray for another chance to hear some of her Berlioz: La Mort de Cléopâtre or Les Nuits d’Été. Or perhaps her other solo performance piece Altre Stelle which includes glimpses of Armide, Rameau’s Phèdre and, based on a broadcast, a most glorious Berlioz Didon. New York too rarely sees such a hypnotic artist.

Photos © LoLL Willems

56 comments

  • laddie says:

    Rudely off topic -- love your review as always Decaf- but here is a little clip I found (while looking at all of the wonderful videos posted in this thread) with Cencic and Yoncheva-would LOVE to have the entire opera recording:

  • Cicciabella says:

    I find Antonacci riveting to watch, live and on video, but often difficult to listen to if it’s just audio. The Wesendock Lieder at the Proms were a mistake, but a grand diva like her is allowed a folly or two. When the music fits her voice, she is not to be missed.

    And completely OT: I’m glad I made time to watch the ROH Vêpres. Herheim’s concept, a metaphor for the relationship between artists (the Sicilians) and their public (the French), made total sense to me. although I’m not sure if this is what Herheim intended. The performers are stifled/victimised/oppressed by the demands of a boorish public and established conventions (like Verdi having to compose all those compulsory ballets). Sicilian rebel leaders Hélène and Procida are artists who refuse to compromise their art, while Henri, half Sicilian and half French by birth, is conflicted between preserving artistic integrity and not totally alienating the public. I wish Herheim would pay more attention to directing the singers’ interactions. Michael Volle draws a wonderful portrait of Montfort and Schrott is a natural actor, but Bryan Hymel founders somewhat when left undirected. A minor quibble, because this man can really sing this role! Fearless top notes, stamina, lyrical sweetness, no vocal tricks. It’s a pity that Lianna Haroutounian was obviously having an off night. Her voice has a lovely warm timbre and she probably matches Hymel’s vocal high jinx when she is not feeling unwell. Herheim provides a series of stylish, memorable images, with meticulously crafted scenery and costumes. Hélène’s brother’s desiccated head is a powerful visualisation of the artist (or art itself?) sacrificed to the public’s capriciousness. Herheim’s problem will always be: how can he ever top that astounding Bayreuth Parsifal? It’s unfair to expect him to do that and each of his productions must be judged on its own merits.
    Buckets of mud have been slung at Holten for hiring the wrong directors, casting the wrong singers and mismanaging cancellitis crises, but after watching Vêpres, I want to say: Bravo, Kasper Holten! And thank you, You Know Who You Are, for making this available to those of us on the wrong side of the North Sea.

    • grimoaldo says:

      “The performers are stifled/victimised/oppressed by the demands of a boorish public and established conventions (like Verdi having to compose all those compulsory ballets).”

      That is interesting Cicciabella, the “concept” of that show just meant absolutely nothing to me, I could not figure it out at all so thanks for the explication, but still I wonder why Helene is carrying around a severed head in her first scene in this scenario? Did her dead brother get his head chopped off because he wanted to cut the ballet in Robert le Diable or put it at the beginning of the opera instead of in the middle? And when Helene is about to have her own head chopped off in Act Four (in the dungeon of the opera house) is this also because she has been rebelling against the conventional use of ballets?
      No, I’m sorry, Sicilian Vespers is about a struggle for political independence,about freedom fighters who are willing to sacrifice their lives and commit assassinations to try to achieve self-determination for their people, about liberation from foreign oppression vs the governor of an Empire who views them as terrorists. It is a great and enduring theme of history, timeless in its centrality. To take such a drama and make in into a metaphor for artists struggling against conventional use of ballets in opera, or artists feeling stifled by boorish audiences, is to substitute what is in comparison a very trivial matter. When at the end of his cabaletta in Act Two Procida utters a great cry of “Freedom!” with the orchestra backing him up with immense grandeur and power, in this scenario he is not dedicating his life to independence for his people, but freedom from compulsory ballets? to me this is just an unforgivable degradation of the original work.
      And Verdi never complained about having to write ballets for his operas in Paris, he liked it. He found the bureaucracy and time-wasting of the Paris Opera frustrating, the length demanded of the works intimidating and the capriciousness of the stars a trial but did not complain about the conventions of the operas themselves, in fact when Otello was going to be presented in Paris, the management wrote to him and said “Now, o great and revered maestro, you don’t have to have your opera translated into French and put a ballet in, we will perform your masterpiece just as you have written it”, he wrote back and said “Why? You should be proud of your traditions, not abandon them” and insisted on writing a short dance for Otello, in fact it is the last music he ever wrote for the stage.
      You say “Michael Volle draws a wonderful portrait of Montfort” and I honestly am amazed that anyone could think that, to me it was one of the most ridiculous performances I have ever seen, hammy to the nth degree, grimace, wave arms around, clutch heart, stagger, collapse to the floor, and all with no real feeling behind it that I could discern. Schrott had a limp at times(an injury sustained in his underground terrorist activity against the compulsory use of ballets?) but forgot it at other times,Hymel just waved his arms around every now and then.
      But thank you for posting your response to the performance Cicciabella, I am not getting at you although I completely disagree that Holten should be congratulated for this show, it makes me want to join an underground band of operatic freedom fighters and commit acts of random terror against those who desecrate operatic masterpieces, but an exchange of views like this is one of the things that make this forum valuable.

      • semira mide says:

        Grimoaldo, when you find that underground band, please let me know and I’m ready to join!
        You are absolutely right about Verdi’s enthusiasm ( my word) for the ballets in his operas. There was a wonderful thesis a number of years ago about Verdi and his ballets. It was published as a book, but I believe it is out of print. Clearly Verdi committed himself to the ballets in his operas as he did all his other artistic endeavors.
        But it is not just Verdi that suffers “ballet contempt” from directors and some audiences. Rossini’s William Tell ballet music fell victim to this attitude in Pesaro last summer.
        I agree about Holten.

        • Cicciabella says:

          On the other hand, cara Semira, the Guillaume Tell in Amsterdam (the one that will eventually arrive at the Met) included the ballets and very beautiful and cleverly integrated into the plot they were, too.

          • Buster says:

            I would have been happier without the ballet, but with the third act trio. Unbelievable they cut that out.

            • Cicciabella says:

              Maybe to spare the singers, Buster? It was a long night at the opera: keeping the trio in would not have made that much difference.

            • Buster says:

              That is a possibility, Cicciabella. Charlotte Margiono had sung it a few months earlier, with two of her pupils, at the Cristina Deutekom Gala, which was the highlight of the evening for me, so I sat waiting for Marina Rebeka to launch it, and it never came….

            • semira mide says:

              I’ve heard so many bad things about the Amsterdam production ( with the exception of the singing) but I cannot believe the trio was cut. Wagner operas are long and I’ve not heard that stuff is cut to spare the singers. Sounds more like the director couldn’t find a clever way of integrating it. Hope it’s restored at the Met.
              Pesaro’s trio ( now on DVD) was sublime, and this isn’t bad either!

              There is no doubt when Podles “enters”

              BTW I didn’t mean to imply in my previous post that the ballet was eliminated in Pesaro -- it just suffered ghastly choreography.

            • Buster says:

              Thanks semira -- how wonderful to hear Cuberli in this.

              Rebeka pointed out the omission in an interview she gave after the premiere, they also cut Jemmy’s aria.

      • MontyNostry says:

        grim, I’m also pretty much with you on this one. And I also noticed Schrott’s intermittent limp -- or perhaps that was meta-level too, telling us something about Procida, though I doubt it. Volle’s acting was fine in a deliberately ironic hammy way -- it was just a shame he couldn’t manage to sustain a Verdian line if his professional life depended on it.

    • manou says:

      Dear Cicciona -- I should forgive you anything for spelling desiccated correctly, and of course it is in very bad taste to interject a tiny dissonant note in this exemplary and courteous exchange of views, but I have to point out that your jinks are jinxed.

      Sincere apologies.

      • Cicciabella says:

        Apologies due on my part, manou. The casting of Hélène in this production was surely jinxed, but Hymel delighted me with his high jinks. If it weren’t for you, this site would descend into homonymic chaos.

  • Cicciabella says:

    Thank you, dear grim, for sharing your reaction to this production. Like you, I could not square the plot and libretto with what was happening on stage, but everything seemed to fit into the artist-as-freedom-fighter metaphor. No production is going to please everyone. I, for one, could not make head or tail of Olivier Py’s nightmares-and-visions Munich Trovatore, but I’m sure many were intrigued and engaged by it. For the record, I’m not one of those who think that a rebellion in 13th century Sicily is too remote to be meaningful to modern audiences. I happen to be very interested in that particular episode in history, and a patriotic rebellion against tyranny can never be meaningless or outdated. The historical Procida is a fascinating figure, enough to inspire a more straightforward but psychologically insightful treatment of the libretto, but Herheim would not be the designated director. The musical values in the ROH production were not as sterling as one might wish. I confined myself to positive comments about the singing. We must agree to disagree on Volle’s acting. It’s enlightening to read that Verdi enjoyed composing ballet music. My comment about the ballets was not based on any scholarship, just my own impression that much of Verdi’s ballet music sounds uninspired, in stark contrast to the rest of his work.

  • armerjacquino says:

    Thanks decaf, for as informed and detailed a review as ever. I’m surprised, though, that you found ‘Lagrime Mie’ the least interesting music. Every since the first time I heard it (in Isabelle Poulenard’s brilliant recording) I’ve found it a quite extraordinary piece.

  • LittleMasterMiles says:

    Wonderful review DeCaf; it makes me wish I had made an effort to get to NY for this.

    One correction, though: the strings in the Combattimento are not only specified in the score, but are essential to the concitato effects that Monteverdi cites as the key innovation of the piece. Unless you meant that the strings were used throughout rather than only in the usual passages? That would be unusual.

    As for Corelli’s portrayal of Ariadne… I just… what is… can’t…

    • la vociaccia says:

      Quite simple, LMM. ‘lasciatemi morire’ is included in the schirmer anthology of Italian songs, and as such has been committed to a centuries’ worth of veristic approximations. Search YouTube (at your own risk) for other stylistically dubious versions

  • Clita del Toro says:

    I am listening to a terrible Norma, Elena Mosuc. What a wobbler and screeched. OY !

    • Straussmonster says:

      Listen to the Armide instead, it’s pretty good.

    • FomalHaut says:

      Elena Mosuc, like Desiree Rancatore, are acquired tastes.

      • Clita del Toro says:

        This is the first time I have heard Mosuc. Maybe she is better in another repertoire.
        It’s not the voice so much as her sloppy phrasing that kills it for me. Wobble+screeching+ bad singing = maybe next time, honey. ;)

        • Clita del Toro says:

          I just listened to a bit of Rancantore’ s singing. An “acquired taste?” You mean , like garbage? ;)

    • manou says:

      So Clita -- I take it that you are not Fabrice Malkani, the reviewer for Forum Opéra :

      “On attendait beaucoup de la présence de la soprano roumaine Elena Mosuc dans le rôle titre et c’est peu dire que l’on n’a pas été déçu. Quelle maîtrise époustouflante de la technique, du souffle, des nuances, de l’articulation et du phrasé ! Et quelle voix, qui sait être majestueuse ou tragique sans verser dans l’excès, rendant perceptible la moindre intonation, le moindre soupir. On atteint à la quintessence du bel canto. Aussi à l’aise dans les aigus que dans les graves, capable de tenir sans effort apparent les plus difficiles des notes filées, Elena Mosuc sait également, en dépit, et pour cause, de toute direction d’acteur, illustrer par sa présence scénique les deux facettes de Norma. Digne druidesse toute en retenue durant le premier acte – à l’exception de la colère qui la saisit à la toute fin lorsqu’elle apprend la trahison de Pollione –, elle déploie dans le deuxième acte, par un engagement physique accru, tout l’éventail des passions qui animent la mère et l’amante.”

      The whole thing here:

      http://tinyurl.com/kmpr44u

    • coloraturafan says:

      To each their own, I’ve seen Mosuc in Lucia and Lucrezia and I loved her. She is getting ready to release a Donizetti aria CD and from what I’ve heard it is going to be incredible.

  • SilvestriWoman says:

    What a glorious piece on certainly the most under-appreicated classical vocal artist working today… The only thing missing is the Io t’abbraccio duet from the Glyndebourne Rodelinda. Antonacci and Scholl are breathtakingly beautiful in ever way. (In fact, it has to be one of the most attractive -- and tallest -- casts ever assembled.)

    • oedipe says:

      Under-appreciated? Yes, in America. Not in France, for sure! But Americans have different tastes. And how about Ciofi or Mosuc?

  • kashania says:

    I would loved to have had Antonacci’s Vitellia instead of Frittoli’s decent but unremarkable effort. And it goes without saying that having her Cassandre instead of Voigt’s would have been a big improvement.

  • Chanterelle says:

    A wonderful summation, DeCaf. Wish I had seen the concert.

    However, Antonacci is a singer I just can’t love. I’ve seen her live in Carmen and Secret of Susanna/La Voix Humaine at Opera Comique, as well as her 2012 Alice Tully recital. Right now I’m listening to her in Ernest Reyer’s Sigurd ( recently performed in concert in Geneva). While I admire her artistry, the voice doesn’t do it for me. Too often she lands flat, too often she coasts above the core of the voice, too often the vibrato flirts with wobble. I always feel that she’s managing her resources at the expense of emotion. There’s a control and coolness that put me off. Wish I had seen her 10 years ago.

    By the way, James Bagwell might well consider Sigurd for the Collegiate Chorale. It’s not Berlioz, but somewhere in the neighborhood. Plenty of gorgeous choral writing and solo work. With a few cuts it would be no more ambitious than Mefistofele.

    • Elizabeth Trainor says:

      Antonacci gave a wonderful performance in a concert version of Penelope last summer in Paris, with Roberto Alagna.

  • vilbastarda says:

    Well, my heartfelt THANK YOU to Hippolyte for alerting us about the Yale concert. As someone who can’t go to NY on a weekday, I’ve mourning the missed chance to see, and hear Antonacci live ever since the Lincoln Center concert was announced. And I’ve been wanting to see her live for years. Obviously, I jumped in my car, and drove 2:30h to New Haven, while shrieking like a 10 year old going to a Bieber concert.

    Who said that Antonacci has to be experienced live was absolutely right. She is absolutely mesmerizing. Now, I was actually surprised to see how much technical imperfection there is in her singing. If you are to focus on the voice, and vocal production, it is at best mediocre, but somehow it doesn’t matter in the overall delivery. She entraps you from the first seconds, and it only gets better from there.

    The program was a collection of art songs from early music, and verismo. It seemed strange at first, but it worked very well, probably also due to the superb accompaniments of Donald Sultzen.

    The venue was a small, and nice concert hall. Maybe because there was virtually no advertisement for this concert, even that small hall was only less than half full. And to think that it was a FREE concert… But even with that very small audience, the communication between the stage and audience was strong. By the end, my friend and I were transfixed, we were living the music and the sound in the most primal sense.

    Now I only wish I could see her in an opera production, in a bigger house. I can only fantasize how her voice would sound there, and how the delivery will be. Maybe some day….

    • suzyQ says:

      Vilbastarda, Glad you enjoyed this wonderful concert. I so wished that I could have attended but alas -- a family obligation came first. Thank you for the review!