Any opportunity to hear the Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci in one of her rare visits to the UK must be seized with both hands. She is an artist very much in her prime right now, whose career has continually defied easily labelling with both mezzo and soprano roles undertaken, and often with great success. Perhaps she is most closely identified with the bel canto school of singing, with some stunning Adalgisas, Elisabettas (Maria Stuarda) and Ermiones to her credit. However, at London’s Wigmore Hall we were fortunate enough to witness this exceptional artist in a more intimate setting, singing songs by Fauré, Hahn, Bachelet and Respighi, as well as some verismo arias courtesy of Zandonai and Mascagni. As can be expected the art of the song recitalist requires very different talents and attributes from that of an opera singer; many a great singer has discovered that this controlled and restrained form of expression is surprisingly challenging. Accompanied superbly throughout by Donald Sulzen on the piano, Antonacci proved herself to be an extraordinary communicator, as vivid and intense on the concert platform as she has ever been on the opera stage. There is only one word to describe her performance during this lunchtime recital and that is stunning.
The Cinq mélodies de Venise is Fauré’s first song cycle and proved to be an ideal opener for this recital. From Mandoline onwards I marvelled at the clarity and expressiveness of Antonacci’s voice, with an unerring ability to shape and colour an individual phrase at will. This cycle gave us plenty of opportunity to hear her sculpt long flowing lines, and to indulge in her rich and earthy lower register. I will long remember the majestic descent on “tout bas” in C’est l’extase. If anything, things improved yet further, with two Études latines (Tyndaris and Phyllis), Fumée, L’énamourée and Le printemps, all by Reynaldo Hahn. In Fumée the voice soared throughout the auditorium with great control over the dynamics of the sound produced, whilst in Le printemps a firm operatic edge was injected into a song redolent with echoes of Gounod. To follow we had a colourful and exciting performance of Bachelet’s Chere nuit, a piece composed for the great Dame Nellie Melba. Naturally this Massenet-esque concoction has great appeal for opera singers, and was delivered with a vibrant and thrilling tone.
The three (of five) Canti all’antica by Ottorino Respighi, were hardly arie antiche in style, being instead somewhat veristic and full-blooded, especially Ballata, which would not be out of place in a Mascagni or Leoncavallo opera. I thought particularly noteworthy her melodramatic use of the chest register on “ne spoglia!” which brought the three songs to a close. Two further songs by Respighi, Pioggia and Nebbie were impressively delivered both in style and in the declamatory nature of the singing required. A sign of a great artist is someone who can charge a single word with a jolt of emotion and intensity, as Antonacci did on the opening “Soffro” in Nebbie. This one song was the highlight of the entire performance, based as it is on a very bleak and desolate text by Ada Negri. Introspective and mournful, it is punctuated by dramatic outbursts and genuine chills. Composed during a melancholy period in Respighi’s life, the music was completed one morning without any words, whilst in the afternoon a chance gift of a book of Negri’s poetry by a friend, provided the composer with the perfect text for the music (apparently he did not alter a single note). Antonacci’s rendering of the text was haunting and suitably intense.
The final selection from the programme was “Paolo, datemi pace!” from Zandonai’s verismo opera, Francesca da Rimini. Not as unknown as it once was (indeed it will be showing next year at Opera Holland Park); the title role has attracted many great divas including Renata Scotto and the evergreen Magda Olivero. On the basis of this one aria alone, I have no doubt that Antonacci could essay the ill-fated heroine should she so wish, as it is a voice born to sing verismo. Dubious melodrama sounds sincere and evocative in her hands, with the voice never once giving the impression that it lacks the necessary metal or colour. The first encore continued this verismo theme, with an extremely polished account of “Son pochi fiori” from Mascagni’s L'amico Fritz, providing yet another tempting tantalizer of what I hope will become the latest development in this wonderful singer’s career. How refreshing it is to hear such a beautiful Mediterranean voice sing music that appears to be tailor made for it, especially when compared to the spectacularly variable efforts by singers like Fleming and Gheorghiu, who simply do not possess the right sort of instrument or temperament (well in Fleming’s case at least) to sing this challenging repertoire. The concert was wrapped up with a delightful performance of the Neapolitan song, Lu cantino.
Anna Caterina Antonacci is certainly one of the most gifted sopranos before the public today, with almost every virtue of a great singer at her command – superb diction, an unfailingly beautiful voice, charisma, temperament in abundance and an innate sense of musicality, which means that she is capable of breathing life into the most simplistic of songs, making you feel that you are listening to masterworks, which in other less capable hands become lifeless the moment they leave the lips of their interpreter. If you can catch this artist of patrician status at either the Toulouse or Lisbon dates of this recital tour, then under no circumstance miss it!