Italian Soprano’s U.S. Stage Debut Double Triumph

Anna Caterina Antonacci as the Woman in OPERA San Antonio's production of 'La voix humaine.'  (Production photos by Greg Harrison)
Anna Caterina Antonacci as the Woman in Opera San Antonio’s production of Poulenc’s ‘La voix humaine.’
(Production photos by Greg Harrison)
By Diane Windeler

SAN ANTONIO – Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci has built a distinctive operatic and recital career over the past 25 years or so in Europe, but rarely performed in the United States until a recital tour in 2012.

Having switched from mezzo to soprano about a dozen years ago, Antonacci marked her first fully staged U.S. opera appearance as a soprano on March 12 in a double bill of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s comedy Il segreto di Susanna and Francis Poulenc’s tragedy La voix humaine. Presented in the intimate Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the double bill closed Opera San Antonio‘s inaugural season.

Susanna (Anna Caterina Antonacci) with Conte Gil (Wayne Tigges).
Susanna (Anna Caterina Antonacci) with Conte Gil (Wayne Tigges).

A program Q&A relates that Antonacci had first performed in a pairing of these works in Paris in 2013, and that she chose them because “they show a large range of emotions and deep feelings.” It proved to be an inspired combination, an ideal showcase for a bel canto specialist known for her commanding theatrical skills.

First up was the Wolf-Ferrari, a charming bonbon brimming with neoclassical melody and a very funny libretto — made clear with English supertitles — by Enrico Golisciani. Susanna’s secret is quite simple: married only a month, she has a serious nicotine habit but is afraid to admit it to her non-smoking husband. So she sneaks off or engages in other subterfuge, which  backfires because her clothes reek of smoke and he is certain she is being unfaithful. Once it is all sorted out, they share cigarettes — all terribly non-PC today, but great fun.

Although Antonacci shifted to soprano some time ago, she still sings some mezzo repertoire, which help to explain why the voice is difficult to categorize. Its low to mid-range is velvety warm, the top coppery and nicely balanced through the registers. But most importantly, she sings with intelligent musicianship and confident coloristic ability. The Susanna material is mostly light and lyrical, delivered with clear diction and expressive acting. Ah, but it was the languid aria “O gioia la nube leggera” that nailed her interpretive skills as she stretched out, catlike, on her back with her cigarette held aloft, rapturously describing her joy and enchantment with the swirling clouds of smoke.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges proved a perfect foil as Susanna’s jealous husband, Conte Gil. He is subject to whiplash mood swings, zigging and zagging between fury and desperate pleading as he tries to learn the identity of Susanna’s supposed lover. Tigges didn’t allow his robust, well-trained voice to get in the way of his hilarious rubber face as he shamelessly mugged his way through the role.

The Woman (Antonacci) has a long call with a former beau.
The Woman (Antonacci) has a long phone call with a former beau.

The non-speaking role of the servant was taken by stage director James Darrah, who was not credited but needed to be. He played a sort of subtle fussbudget, yet often was laugh-out-loud funny.

Darrah’s direction is smooth and easygoing, with amusing little turns, such as having Gil leave in a huff and close the door behind him — except that his hand remains resting on the inside knob. When Susanna cajoles him to make up, they clasp hands on that knob for a while before he turns and re-enters.

The production was designed by Chromatic, the Los Angeles-based company headed by Darrah. The simple, sophisticated set featured a patterned wall backdrop with double doors opening to two other rooms, flanked by off-white upholstered furniture and accent pieces.

Music director Andres Cladera led a fluent, responsive nine-piece chamber orchestra of San Antonio Symphony musicians — plus pianist Aaron Likness — in the Maria Carmela Orso arrangement.

Antonacci has performed La voix humaine several times since that Paris version in 2013, most recently in New York earlier this month. That one, however, was the concluding portion of a solo recital at Alice Tully Hall and was unstaged. This one was staged, also by Darrah, and featured Munich Piano Trio pianist Donald Sulzen, the soprano’s frequent collaborator, who used Poulenc’s own piano arrangement.

The piece is drawn from Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play of the same name. A longtime friend and admirer of Poulenc, Cocteau not only served as librettist for the 1959 opera, but he also directed and handled most of the production’s design details.

Francis Poulenc, composer of 'La voix humaine.'
Francis Poulenc, composer of ‘La voix humaine.’

It’s a wrenching psychological study of a desperate woman at the end of a five-year relationship with a man who is plainly her raison d’être, but he is moving on. She cannot come to terms with that and has lost all perspective. The entire 40-minute monologue is her side of a series of phone calls on a frequently interrupted party line. She moves from anguish to hopefulness, pleading to anger, and, finally, to bleak resignation.

It was a convincing, intensely dramatic performance showing that, like the best singing actresses, Antonacci does not fear the sacrifice of tonal beauty to ensure emotional impact.

Darrah’s direction prompted some intriguing questions, as did the set, with its rusty claw-foot bathtub at center stage instead of the customary bed. A shadowy male figure appeared for a while behind the backdrop scrim. What was that? Did she really try to commit suicide the night before as she claimed? In the end, as she slipped quietly into that bathtub with her disconnected phone in hand, the ambiguity and surrealness made sense when balanced with Poulenc’s evocative score.

Negotiating the score’s complexities with seeming ease, Sulzen was an exemplary, facile partner.

A footnote: Composer Tobias Picker was hired in 2010 as founding artistic director of the company when it was little more than a dream. Last January, with the Opera San Antonio inaugural season in place, his five-year contract was fulfilled, and in the announcement of his departure, Picker said that although he had put new commissions and other matters aside, they now must be addressed. At this writing, a search for Picker’s successor is underway.

Diane Windeler is an independent San Antonio-based writer who was classical music critic for the San Antonio Light for 11 years before its demise in 1993. Later, she covered music and theater for 13 years as a freelancer for the San Antonio Express-News. She now contributes to the website