The word unique is applied far too often by optimistic recording companies and journalists to artists, especially singers. Anna Caterina Antonacci is one of the few artists currently before the public to whom the epithet can be applied with total justification. Seen far too infrequently in London, Antonacci returned to the Wigmore Hall for a lunchtime recital accompanied by her regular musical partner, Donald Sulzen. It remains a mystery why she is not seen in London more often - her Royal Opera Carmen partnered with Jonas Kaufmann and Antonio Pappano made an otherwise dull production incandescent. Her Ermione and Rodelinda at Glyndebourne blazed with an almost unbearable intensity. Yet she has not appeared at either of the above addresses for several years. Fortunately for those of us accustomed to travelling abroad to get our Diva fix she will be bringing her astonishing Cassandre (again partnered by Kaufmann and Pappano) to David McVicar’s new production of Les Troyens at the Royal Opera. And about time say we.
Antonacci recitals are not for those who enjoy polite concerts of song repertoire - she stalks onto the stage clad in a dress which would not look out of place on Medea (another riveting Antonacci assumption still to make it to London) and proceeds to eat the Wigmore Hall whole.
The concert was titled “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra” (Dawn divides the light from the shadow) a line taken from the second of the Tosti Amaranta song group. However the programme began nearly 300 years before with Antonio Cesti’s graceful “Intorno all’idol mio” from his opera Orontea. Sung by the eponymous heroine over the sleeping form of her innamorato the aria is a cunning mix of simplicity and sensual implication. Antonacci invests the song with a breathless voluptuousness especially on the phrase “E nelle guance elette”. The thread of silken sound on the repeated final line “Svelategli per me, o larve d’amore” held the house breathless. If only more early music specialists sang it like this!
The remainder of the programme was firmly rooted in the heady, perfumed world of Italian romanticism. Paired with the Cesti was a single song by Respighi “Sopra un’aria antica” set to a text by D’Annunzio. Again Antonacci’s dramatic instincts came to the fore - her still, attentive poise during the introduction echoed the first line “Ascolta, ascolta” and later channelling the tension of “Non odi? Non odi?”. In the central section Antonacci ranged from the grandeur of “Tu pensi che è l’ultima volta!” only to die away in hushed desperation of the admission “It is the last time!” The song ends in the bitterness (given full value by Antonacci) of the extraordinary line “Degli orti remoti / Ove in torno andavano donne possenti / Cantando tra cupidi fiori” (From the distant garden around which were walking powerful women singing amid the covetous flowers)
The D’Annunzio theme continued with the Tosti Quattro canzone d’Amaranta. In the first, “Lasciami!”, the perfumed opening contrasts vividly with Antonacci’s voce soffogata for the lines “Lascia ch’io respiri, lascia ch’io mi sollevi!”. The hothouse imagery “l’erba s’insànguina d’amore” (the grass is bloodstained with love) and “I die, pierced, but not by your sword” is pretty strong stuff even today, but meat and drink to a fearless artist such as Antonacci.
With each ensuing song Antonacci conjures a different character - the serene passion of the second song “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra” is a world away from the hysteria of “Lasciami!” despite the Tristanesque echo of “Chiudimi, o notte” which builds to the passionate climax of the final lines “Ma che dal sangue mio nasca l’aurora / E dal sogno mio breve il sole eterno!” (But let the dawn rise from my blood and from my brief dream the eternal sun!”
We progress through the cold disdain of “In van preghi” barely masking the suffocated despair to calm acceptance of fate and mortality in “Che dici, o parola del saggio?” Again Antonacci grabs our attention for every minute, subtle twist and turn of the journey.
The three songs by Francesco Cilèa are, surprisingly, less redolent of the pressure cooker passion of the Tosti group. The lilting dance feel of the opening “Serenata” is skilfully evoked by accompanist, Donald Sulzen and Antonacci contrasts the darkness of “Come un’onda di sospir” with a magical fil da voce on the repeated final “La Serenata”
The second song “Nel ridestarmi” opens with a shimmering portrayal of a hazy Italian dawn, progresses through the choked passion “Flusso e riflusso avea, senza provare. Desiderii o dolore?” (“..floated back and forth, without feeling either desire or pain?) to the grand summation “Anima mia, dov’eri?”. Antonacci pulls out all the operatic stops but then caps it with a hushed pianissimo for the repeat of the same phrase.
The character of the third song “Non ti voglio amar?”defines yet another vivid personality - this time Antonacci portrays a confident, independent woman mocking her weak former lover. She was especially fine in the jeering final line “And if a single look I gave you of the kind, you know, that stopped you cold, if I said a single word to you, you would still say “I want not your love”?
I found the group of five songs by Reynaldo Hahn which followed the Cilèa group the least satisfactory. They are charming but almost too lightweight for Antonacci’s huge personality and often she seemed to be trying to inject grand drama which simply isn’t part of Hahn’s intentions. The best of the five were “La Biondina in gondoleta” telling the story of a lusty gondolier taking advantage of his dozing sweetheart. The final verse had an almost x-rated post coital bloom to it.
The sharp satire of “Che pecà!” also unexpectedly suited Antonacci and revealed a wicked sense of fun, particularly in the closing line “Quando in cielo vien fora la luna / Vago in leto e me meto a ronfar / Senza gnanca pensarghe al passà!” (When the moon appears in the sky I’ll take to my bed and snore without a thought for the past!”)
The final song of the concert was Licinio Refice’s “Ombra di nube” recently brought back to prominence thanks to the advocacy of Jonas Kaufmann. While Kaufmann gives the aria a shining dignity matched to a superb sense of vocal line Antonacci adds more overt passion and a greater sense of ebb and flow. Both interpretations are equally valid - happy the public that can have and appreciate both.
Antonacci returned to Tosti and “Marechiare” for a single encore rounding off a fascinating recital. May she return soon and often!