OAE/Roger Norrington at Royal Festival Hall with Anna Caterina Antonacci – Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers

Symphony No.85 in B flat (La Reine)
Medea – Dei tuoi la madre
Orfeo ed Euridice – Dance of the Blessed Spirits
Iphigénie en Tauride – O malheureuse Iphigénie
Orfeo ed Euridice – Dance of the Furies
Les Troyens – Ah! Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cite
Symphony in C

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 30 September, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Roger NorringtonThe Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment opened its London season with the first concert (of four) celebrating – If that’s the word, given the thrust of the first programme – “Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers”, and the hardships endured by Medea, Iphigenia and Dido are a gift to a tragic diva worthy of the name.

The concert opened, though, with a queen of Haydn’s own, his charmer of a ‘Paris’ Symphony, ‘La Reine’, with the OAE’s conductor emeritus Sir Roger Norrington deploying his characteristically vestigial style – a gesture here, a flick or two of a hand to set up a tempo there, hands in pockets between movements, the 78-year-old guru of the authentic performance club would be eminently caricaturable were it not for the results he achieved – buoyant phrasing, humour, and neatly defined brilliance. The string accompaniment for one of the variations in the slow movement, the sound Norrington conjured for the Trio of the Minuet, Lisa Besnosiuk’s effortless flute-playing and the butch horn contributions joined up the dots between wit and wisdom that can make Haydn so addictive. The audience lapped up Norrington’s showman asides, though on repetition they became a bit cute and contrived.

Anna Caterina Antonacci. Photograph: Serge Derossi/NaiveAs far as the OAE strings were concerned, they were of course a strictly no-vibrato zone, and their sound had that wiry, tantalisingly volatile and bright quality that suited the Haydn down to the ground. Its glassy, smooth surface also hit the spot in the Cherubini and Gluck, but in the Trojans extract you missed that highly charged, yearning expression that defines the core of Berlioz’s music. It favoured the Bizet, placing the delightful Symphony in C – as precocious a work as, say, Mendelssohn’s Octet – at the heart of that lightly scored style that is so inimitably French. What you lose in sameness of sound and volume, you gain in immediacy and attack, although I think I may have detected the odd left-hand tremble from some players in the Adagio.

The embargo on vibrato did not extend to the abundant riches of Anna Caterina Antonacci’s voice, billed as a soprano, but blissfully charged with sultry mezzo fullness. Dressed in a strangely reflective, slightly predatory black gown, Antonacci made the most of her considerable stage presence, enhanced by performing from memory, with minimum but pertinent histrionics (and none from Norrington, who worked wonders in the responsive orchestral accompaniments). The agonising narrative of the Medea aria (“I am the mother of your sons”) flowed with emotional insight and fury, and Iphigenia’s song got to the heart of Gluck’s time-suspending, interior music with impressive control. In Berlioz’s outpouring for the abandoned Dido – “Ah! I am going to die … Farewell, proud city” – she was every bit as convincing as in her eviscerating Cassandra in the recent Royal Opera production of Berlioz’s magnum opus. All the drama was in the voice, a bit strained now and then at the top but thrillingly powerful and romantic in her lower register, searching out Dido’s fading vision of love and freedom with unerring imagination and intuition – and her encore, from her signature role as Carmen, was no less exciting.

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