La voix humaine/ La dame de Monte Carlo (Wigmore Hall, 14 September 2015)
… or Poulenc for lunch with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Donald Sulzen (piano). You can hear it here, as part of Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts.
Sometimes it’s good to have a bit of a break from the things you like. You’re then more open to embrace that which you might not have loved before. In my case, the last time I wrote about Anna Caterina Antonacci I moaned about her voice.
You can now consider me a convert. It’s the result of many things; truth be told, I have been intrigued by Antonacci for some time. Even as her Vitellia is – emotionally – not one of my favourites, intellectually I could not fault her intelligent and personal take. Since she cancelled Barbican’s Poppea last year (it didn’t bother me then but now I am retrospectively saddened) my exposure to her has been limited. I’ve heard her Cleopatre and bits of her Donna Elvira, Romeo and Agrippina in addition to Vitellia; somehow nothing ever quite worked for me, though on paper I should like her. As evidenced by the above roles, she’s my kind of soprano: the mezzo-ish kind.
Enter Wigmore Hall. Many have sung praises to its acoustics. Much as I often bemoan my lot in life, I have been fortunate in at least one area: that of being able to hear lots of my favourite singers perform there. Wigmore Hall is the shower of venues: makes everyone sound better. More than that, it seems to favour just the kind of dense voice Antonacci has.
My fears of her sounding harsh in an emotionally charged couple of pieces were dispelled right off the bat. The voice came off clear and full-strong, stylishly produced and healthy. That she was completely in control goes without mention. That her middle-happy voice lacked the annoying soprano ping was the hallelujah moment of the afternoon. Can we have more sopranos like this? She can do high, she can do low, she can sound soft and girlish, she can be intense with the best of them. Without the grating soprano high note attack. Granted, this won’t work for the type of roles that call for a bell-like sound but we’ve enough sopranos who can do that.
I did not know La dame de Monte Carlo, but for once I read the programme and learned it was a shorter soprano piece Poulenc composed on another Cocteau text, three years after La voix humaine. It’s very much along the same lines: a woman on the verge of breakdown. This one perfoms her own version of Russian roulette: when (already depressed) she loses her last dime gambling in Monte Carlo, she considers it the last denial of fate and throws herself into the sea. But in spite of the morbid theme the text thrives on wordplay:
si l’on craint de s’ouvrir les veines,
on peut toujours risquer la veine
d’un voyage à Monte-Carlo
Après avoir vendu à votre âme et mis en gage
des bijoux que jamais plus on ne réclame,
la roulette est un beau joujou.
C’est joli de dire: “je joue”.
It was a good idea starting with this ~10min French-style soprano lament, which provided ACA with an ideal warm-up for the high strung tour de force that is La voix humaine.
One, I think, needs a lot of chutzpah to perform this, as it’s full-on from the getgo. But, again, there are those French-hilarious moments in the text, the many times when the intense conversation is interrupted by breaks on the phone line. I like this realism, it makes the text that much more human; it reminds us that no matter how serious we think our situation is, the world keeps spinning.
With only the (excellent, engaging) piano accompaniment and a few props (orange rotary phone, a desk, a chair, the letters to her lover and a glass of water), this performance was more intimate than the fully staged one I saw in Wiesbaden, matching the smaller venue. But then some might argue that the stripped down approach benefits this piece even better. I liked both but I will say that Wigmore Hall all around exceeded my expectations today.
The intimacy of the piece(s), of the venue, the way the venue welcomed ACA’s voice, the way she used the venue to her advantage (and never overdid vocal projection), the intense yet supportive accompaniment – everything worked out to wonderful effect. There is no doubt in my mind that this was one of the best performances I have witnessed there and for the uber bargainous price of £13 regardless of seat!
Antonacci’s take on the unhappy heroine focused on the lyricism of the situation rather than the edginess of the character. I believed that the woman was unhappy, that she was still deeply in love with her ex who has obviously moved on (but, unwisely, not on enough, still feeding her unhealthy attachement with perhaps pity), that the only thing she was living for was hearing his voice. Because of this emphasis on the internal dimension of the character the performance came off surprisingly understated. Perhaps a little too polished in sound.
Would a more forceful approach have made a more visceral impact? But then the atmosphere wouldn’t have been the same. What made the performance unique was the sum of it all. The genuine pleasure of her sound as experienced here struck me as widely different than on record, where I never liked it much. Polished then, I heard it as stylish and thoroughly dignified.
Hope she comes back to London soon!
Posted on September 14, 2015, in 20th century, live performances, sopranos, wigmore hall and tagged anna caterina antonacci, donald sulzen, francis poulenc, radio 3 lunchtime concerts, wigmore hall. Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.