By Heidi Waleson
NEW YORK — The Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci made a rare U.S. appearance Feb. 20-21 with a recital program at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall presented by the New York City Opera. The opening concert, reviewed here, was an exhilarating exploration of this artist’s special talents.
Antonacci’s voice is like liquid metal, ductile in its flexibility, forthright without being sumptuous. She sings with extraordinary clarity and articulation; the words are critical, whatever the language. The bright acoustics of Zankel amplified this trait, though not always to her advantage. In the first half of the program, which featured early 20th-century music, her opening group of four famous Debussy songs, including “Mandoline” and “C’est l’extase,” was almost clinical, without the erotic perfume inherent in Verlaine’s texts; her fine pianist, Donald Sulzen, echoed her thoughtful, non-sensual stylings.
In the second, less-known French group by Nadia Boulanger, Antonacci was particularly striking in songs that stressed precision of expression, like “Mon coeur,” in which she evoked the trembling of a captive bird with whispered delicacy. In between, she switched to Italian for Respighi’s lush cycle Deità silvane and immediately became more theatrical and operatic — you could hear the fauns racing through the forest in her consonants in “I fauni” and feel the deathlike fading of day in her shadowy phrasing of “Crepuscolo.”
The second half of the program, with its later, pricklier repertoire, was more satisfying overall. Antonacci’s English pronunciation had some flaws in Britten’s On This Island, set to poems by Auden, making the speedy verses of “Now the leaves are falling fast” unintelligible. But she excelled with the creepy text of “Nocturne,” changing vocal colors with each line to create a sinister, rocking lullaby, and with the bouncy sarcasm of “As it is, plenty.” Poulenc’s Le travail du peintre, settings of poems by Paul Éluard, is doubly pictorial, with the music and poems evoking the style of each artist. The soprano was in her element here, from the edgy, declamatory “Pablo Picasso” to the madly playful “Marc Chagall” and especially the ominous gloom of “Jacques Villon,” which sounded like Dialogues des Carmélites, completed in 1956, the same year as the cycle.
Antonacci concluded her descent into darkness with Poulenc’s La Dame de Monte-Carlo, with its Cocteau text about a suicidal woman making a last trip to the gambling tables; she created an arresting character consumed with feverish despair. Then, her two encores offered something completely different: a Frescobaldi song, sung with a lightness that reminded us of her excellence in 17th-century music, and a wonderfully subtle “Habanera” from Carmen confirming the fact — in case there was any doubt — that Antonacci never does anything obvious.
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for The Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of U.S. and international publications.