Wigmore Hall Live – L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra – Anna Caterina Antonacci & Donald Sulzen

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Venezia – Chansons en dialecte vénitien [selections]
Quattro canzoni d’Amaranta
Serenata; Nel ridestarmi; Non ti voglio amar
Ombra di nube
Intorno all’idol mio
Sopra un’aria antica
Marechiare (Canto Napoletano)

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano) & Donald Sulzen (piano)

Recorded 5 December 2011 at Wigmore Hall, London

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: October 2012
Duration: 50 minutes



Dawn divides the light from the shadows… Journalistic treatment of Anna Caterina Antonacci tends to depict her as something of a cult figure, a Leyla Gencer de nos jours, relatively under-employed, a risky gamble for opera companies who prefer a safe pair of hands. A well-publicised spat with the management of New York’s Metropolitan Opera provoked by the engagement of a contemporary (I am tempted to say rival) prima donna in a role which had been promised to her, has had the effect of confirming her reputation for artistic tenacity and personal assertiveness. She is certainly much more than a pretty voice. Admired for her charismatic stage presence and deep immersion in the operatic character she is portraying, an analogy with Maria Callas suggests itself, reinforced by the fact that she has, by her own admission, engaged in a battle with her voice: as heard here it has a lush bloom, seasoned by a piquancy which extends its expressive potential. Her chest register is a powerful weapon, enhanced in some of these songs by downward transposition.

The BBC Lunchtime Recital here recorded (in its entirety, though perversely not in the order as performed) is unusual in that it features a full-blown opera singer who belongs more in the opera house than on the concert platform. The Wigmore Hall brand for solo vocal music, as built up over many years by William Lyne and perpetuated by current Director John Gilhooly, is firmly based on the song recital. Visiting artists are expected to confine themselves to works originally composed for voice and piano. German Lieder, French Mélodies, English, Russian and Spanish Song are all deemed to have a suitable stature, the right degree of seriousness. All very prim and proper and a policy clearly appreciated by the fastidious Wigmore audience.

Italian repertoire, however, presents a problem: Neapolitan songs are well down the musical scale and the great composers from Rossini to Respighi have preferred to express their vocal invention in opera. Assuming that operatic arias are taboo except as encores (Antonacci sang two such in her 2009 recital at this Hall) there is a restricted range of reputable material from which to choose. Ironically many a recitalist would get round this problem by starting his or her programme with arie antiche, Italian songs from the 17th- and 18th-centuries, often originating in long-neglected operas.

In this programme Antonacci offered a sample of Italian canzone, from 1656 to 1935, bulked up with Reynaldo Hahn’s 1901 imitations of Venetian boating songs. Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato have both included this cycle in recent recitals at the Hall which have been recorded and issued in this series. Maybe this confirms the paucity of native art song.

As listeners can programme their compact disc players to restore the original order of play I shall review the music as it was performed at the time. Beginning with Cesti’s 1656 love song, Antonacci demonstrates control of the graces expected in this music, the turns of the vocal line and the cadential trills elegantly delivered. The Respighi piece quotes this very song to embody the conceit of D’Annunzio’s nostalgic poem, that the discovery of an old aria revives memories of the past and reminds the poet of the inevitability of decay. This is s largely declamatory piece and Antonacci’s precision in articulating the Italian text comes to the fore, including some pungent parlando. The largely independent piano part is early evidence of the major contribution which Donald Sulzen is to make to this partnership.

Tosti is normally associated with the sugary-sweet romances so beloved of tenor recitalists (and, in case that sounds condemnatory, insufficiently appreciated for his mastery of the genre). The ‘Amaranta’ songs aspire to a higher cultural level and are certainly more than comfortable salon music. They form a satisfyingly diverse group, each setting giving a different flavour to D’Annunzio’s poems on the theme of death. It is the pianist who sets the tone of all-pervading melancholy in ‘Lasciami! Lascia ch’io respiri’, imprisoned in its A flat minor tonality like prison bars and underpinned throughout by an unceasing iambic rhythm in the bass. In ‘L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra’ Sulzen presses forward irresistibly, propelling the voice before him in the ecstatic final phrases; Antonacci’s vocal resources are fully tested. For ‘In van preghi’ he reverts to a supporting role, offering only accompanying figures and doubling of the vocal line as the singer takes charge with flowing lyrical utterances in which Antonacci is just as much at home. Finally in ‘Chedici, o parola del Saggio’ the transition from the bleak opening to the triumphant major key which signals acceptance of the inevitability of death is confirmed by the piano’s long Schumann-esque postlude.

The search for worthy Italian songs from the pen of fin de siècle opera-composers has yielded three decent efforts (but no more) by Cilea. First comes a buoyant serenade in which Sulzen supports the soprano with sonorous playing, though regrettably Cilea turns to repetition to fill it out. More imaginative is the airy circling of the pianist’s right-hand in Nel ridestarmi’. In this and in ‘Non ti voglio amar’ it is no great surprise to find the composer turning to operatic rhetoric at the climax, demanding full voice from the singer.

Reynaldo Hahn was an unarguably gifted musician and his well-known ability to assume the style of a different place, time and culture has here produced music with considerable wit, even greater charm and few pretensions. The two flamboyant songs ‘L’avertimento’ and ‘Che pecà!’ are given relatively straightforward performances. The former, in variation form, warns in each verse of an attractive woman’s wiles; the latter, sung by a once infatuated lover now in middle age and able to objectify his youthful indiscretions. In the three romantic songs set on the water itself the artists would have done better to rely on the composer’s dynamic markings, perhaps adding a judicious amount of rubato which is so effective elsewhere in this recital. Instead there is a considerable amount of artful treatment of the text. Words are underlined, phrases invested with innocent wonderment, sensual insinuation and the like, as if this were a Lied.

With Ombra di nube, Antonacci and her pianist take on no less an antagonist than Claudia Muzio in one of the great soprano’s last recordings (with orchestra), made within months of her death and invested with the attendant pathos. The modern singer inevitably finishes runner-up but not without suggesting that she possesses a voice as individualistic in its way as her distinguished predecessor. The release of energy in the encore, Tosti’s Marechiare, is pleasing.

The recording, as is now customary in this series, delivers an utterly faithful account of the live event: voice and piano are in ideal balance. Full texts and English translations are supplied. An article by Andrew Stewart is useful but in it he rather oddly mixes the roles of expert elucidator of the music with reviewer of the concert and summary biographer of the singer.

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