Review: Anna Caterina Antonacci Captivates and Conquers in a Rare Recital Appearance at Zankel Hall
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, February 21, 2018
New York City Opera brings the celebrated Anna Caterina Antonacci to Carnegie Hall for a rare, intimate recital and audiences should run, not walk. It is a privilege to experience vocalism of this caliber, and this former mezzo turned soprano, who had a celebrated operatic career in Europe (scarcely appearing in the U.S., which is what makes this opportunity special), lives up to her reputation in this high-minded, captivating program.
Looking glamorous, a vision of Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, she harnesses gravity in order to defy it, deeply rooted into the ground, spending much the performance clutching the crook of the piano like a lover. Collaborating beautifully at the keyboard, the sophisticated Donald Sulzen supports Antonacci’s scintillating interpretations with subtlety, evenness, and generosity.
Speaking of generosity, the program covers a lot of ground, an in-depth foray into the musicianship of these thoughtful artists. Beginning with a set of Debussy chansons, Antonacci is the ideal in art song delivery. She internalizes each phrase with the specificity of an actor’s monologue, each long high note, sounding like spun gold, exists purely for the poetry. Her glistening tones are floating and pointed, and her piercing eyes austere in their seriousness.
The Verlaine poems set by Debussy frequently contain questions, something not lost on Antonacci. Her “C’est l’extase langoureuse” is exquisite: smoky and yearning. In the rippling piano part of “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” Sulzen paints a canvas raining with tears.
The pair follow their Debussy set with a delightfully unexpected song cycle by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi called Deità Silvane from 1917. Stylistically not far removed from the slightly older Paolo Tosti, these songs inspired by mythology and nature incorporate his signature birdsong and musical tone-painting in a coloristic, varied piano part which he later orchestrated. Antonacci brings these colorful songs to life with vivid energy.
The meloncholy “Crepuscolo (Twilight)” is spell-binding in this flexible, supple performance. In this rhapsodic, variegated song, and indeed throughout the evening, Sulzen accomplishes a feat of Olympian team-playing, bringing accuracy and clear delineation to the various textures in the score, yet in graceful servitude to Antonacci’s driving urgency.
The concert’s first half is rounded out in an equally surprising set of songs by Nadia Boulanger, remembered primarily as one of the most prominent composition teachers of the twentieth century (her students included everyone from Aaron Copland to Quincy Jones), but as evidenced in these assorted art songs, a wonderful (and rather conservative) composer in her own right. Antonacci sings these lush pieces with great directness and focus. Sulzen’s dynamic control is admirable, the balance between piano and voice always just right, the louds carefully dispatched to emphasize harmonic highlights.
Anna Caterina Antonacci stands out among today’s singers because she is rhythmic, keeping the musical momentum moving forward, never wallowing in the sound of her own voice. This is especially crucial in “On This Island,” an early, highly accessible song cycle by Benjamin Britten with text by his friend W. H. Auden. While Antonacci does not excel at English diction as she does Italian and French (something missing in her final consonants in English), the Britten songs satisfy nonetheless, especially in the florid melismatic passages of “Let the florid music praise!” and the picturesque “Seascape”, which are an opportunity for Antonacci to display her dazzling virtuosity. I have never heard this technically exacting music tossed off so thrillingly. In the ironic, Weill-esque “As it is, plenty,” Antonacci exhibits a sense of humor, too.
The program continues with an elusive song cycle about painters by Francis Poulenc, which Antonacci and Sulzen commit to imaginatively, and concludes with a 1961 mono-drama by Poulenc to a text of Jean Cocteau called “La Dame de Monte-Carlo,” which gives Antonacci a chance to perform a veritable role, a woman destroyed by gambling who is impelled to suicide. In this more theatrical work, in which she speak-sings occasionally, as well as in art song, she emotes, but only to communicate the text truthfully.
Antonacci is renowned for her Carmen (a role she excelled at as a mezzo) and this evening she treated the audience to an encore of Carmen’s beloved Habanera, which she sings delicately and soulfully. The rapt audience cherished every note.
New York City Opera presents Anna Caterina Antonacci, soprano, and Donald Sulzen, piano, in recital at Zankel Hall on February 20-21, 2018.
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Chanson “Elle a vendu mon coeur”
Vous m’avez dit
C’était en juin
On this Island
Le travail du Peintre
La dame de Monte-Carlo
Cover: Donald Sulzen (piano) and Anna Caterina Antonacci at Zankel Hall; photo: Sarah Shatz.