Anna Caterina Antonacci: An Over-Analysed Recital?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wolf, Debussy, Wagner, Puccini and Respighi: Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Donald Sulzen (piano) and Heath Quartet: Wigmore Hall, London 9.5.2013. (JPr)

Wolf:  Italian Serenade
DebussyChansons de Bilitis
WagnerWesendonck Lieder
From Ariettes oubliées: C’est l’extase; Il pleure dans mon Coeur;    Green.Le promenoir des deux amants
RespighiIl tramonto for voice and string quartet

It was 2006 when I became aware of this celebrated singer from Ferrara, Anna Caterina Antonacci, when she sang a wonderful Carmen at Covent Garden. However I have been rather underwhelmed ever since and this recital was unfortunately no different. Antonacci performs both mezzo and soprano roles in a variety of styles of music. Here, accompanied by her regular collaborator, Donald Sulzen as well as the youthful Heath Quartet, her programme was a welcome variant on the ‘usual suspects’ frequently performed on the recital platform – and notably at the Wigmore Hall – of, amongst others, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Wolf, Ravel and Schoenberg.

There was lots of Debussy – the song cycles Chansons de Bilitis and Le promenoir des deux amants, three songs from Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten airs) and Mandoline. These were set to a variety of romantic and neo-romantic poetry poems dating from the seventeenth- to the late-nineteenth century. Along with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder – these poems were a gift by Mathilde Wesendonck to the composer – and Respighi’s setting of Shelley’s poem The Sunset (translated into Italian as Il tramonto ) love was obviously ‘in the air’! As a whole I think they covered the entire gamut of human emotions when one person is attracted to someone of the opposite – and occasionally the same – sex. There is the initial flirtation, possible rejection or denial of true feelings, then overwhelming passion, the post-coital satisfaction, and finally, love lost.

Anna Caterina Antonacci’s distinctive voice is essentially a warm and slightly husky mezzo sound, not particularly resonant and with a rather limited lyric soprano top. There is clearly a great musical intelligence at work and her singing is very expressive in its use of the texts. However, for me everything seems to be internalised a little too much and one song drifted into another without her truly communicating the true meaning. Wagner’s Träume summed up the themes of this recital as it deals with blossoming love followed by death and it needed a greater sense of dream-like rapture than Antonacci seems capable of: it should almost be an out-of-body experience. Here and elsewhere in her recital programme, I felt that however wonderful the sounds she often made, it was as though it was being recorded for a CD and there was no real communication with her audience. It seemed most of the songs had been over-analysed and any spontaneity drained from them. Throughout, Donald Sulzen’s rather understated accompaniment was sensitive and articulate; Debussy was a French Impressionist composer but gives us real rain in Il pleure dans mon coeur and Sulzen brought this out very clearly in his pianistic pattering.

The concluding long and highly dramatic Il tramonto – love and loss once again – was perhaps the highlight of the recital. It is rather declamatory and is modelled on Monteverdi. Here Antonacci showed her true artistry and her vocalism seemed to have gained at last more true focus and meaning. The Heath Quartet players joined her and each had their own chance to confirm an earlier impression – from a spirited account of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade and an elegiac one of Puccini’s Crisantemi – that each was a virtuoso in their own right. In Il tramonto they supported their singer with subtle refinement, displaying to the full Respighi’s skilful instrumental writing.

The applause at the end of the evening was enthusiastic but not overwhelming; still no (almost obligatory) encore was forthcoming – I would have thought a string quartet, pianist and singer could have conjured something up to send their audience more happily on their way.

Jim Pritchard


For details of concerts at the Wigmore Hall go to the Wignore Hall website.