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.

voixhumaineYou 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.

voixhumaineOne, 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!

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on September 14, 2015, in 20th century, live performances, sopranos, wigmore hall and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.

  1. thanks for the really nice write up! really made me wish i could hear her live at wigmore too!! (but i also mentioned i like her.. i think it’s her take on things, it makes one think, and you see the work as non 1-d. at least that’s my impression though i’ve only seen her on yt! and admittedly not every single time she gave me this impression, but when you see it once, you realize how different such a singer is to the one where you don’t pause and think about the character.. and the super bonus of a non-headache inducing voice!
    she was a “mezzo” for a very long time i read.. and then changed her approach, and now refused to take any label, which is great. whatever she wants to sing, why bother with label!

    • ps- it was this article . (ps- i watched her sing “romeo” once, from 199? , whole version on tube.. i must say it was a bit … 🙂 , she could use some walking lesson and romeo pointers from vk 😉 . the voice was also a bit light for romeo..)

    • ps2- but i was regretting that she didn’t make Poppea!! coz i was so sure it would have been a very engaging nite at the opera for you (and a host of people who were discussing that role at that particular run) and good read for me!

      • now in hindsight and having read that she really likes Monteverdi I am very sad she pulled out. I wonder why, she actually cancelled with plenty of time to go (like 1-2 months before the show). She and Sarah Connolly would’ve been a very exciting combo.

        • oh? where did you read she likes Monterverdi? i didn’t know she sings monteverdi!
          (on monteverdi subject, SC is singing Nerone from Bucharest this week i think, either thur or fri)

          • Check it out here from The Telegraph. She even wants to sing Orfeo! Good idea, I say 😀

            Thu/Fri are bad for me… maybe you snap it 😉

            • that s a very cool interview!

              • I liked it too! Sometimes RC gets it right 😉

                • on the topic of her darker voice, i was listening to her dueting pergolesi’s stabat mater last month and realized the contrast there was difficult to hear!
                  ps- singing orfeo!! that s progressive! i like how she described the conductors’ reaction. so true if you dont even think of its possibility in the firat place

                  • she has a point about Orfeo, it seems it can be done by every voice type. I’ve heard it live with a tenor and a baritone and it sounded good either way.

                    also, some characters are so “general” that it shouldn’t matter who sings them. Who wouldn’t want to do anything to retrieve the love of their life? Going to “Hades” can mean just going through hell and back.

                    I’m going to look for Stabat Mater now to see.

                  • what a weird idea that the Met rather wanted Angela Gheorghiu to sing Donna Elvira!

                    • i see them as normally hiring either w their fav locals or totally hyped up singers… like if AN said she wants to sing carman i can see they d clear out all singers to bring her in…

                    • a few days ago I decided to read the comments after the new ROH season was announced and they were just depressing. Most everyone wanted more JK and AN, as if there aren’t plenty of other singers out there… Apparently JK sang some sugary song + the most common Puccini arias known to men at the closing of the Proms and the ladies threw their undies at him.

                    • i was told this entire wk was dedicated to his voice on francemusique or something.. but i read a really nice review from a blog i like (link via stray’s) and actually it got me curious.. so i might listen to his latest cd after all! esp coz i don’t know these “famous” puccini’s arias…

                    • they are boring. vinceeeeeeeeeeerooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! whatever.

                      but, omg, JK! it’s like no one has ever heard a dark tenor voice in the past. Ok, dark tenor voice with pretty ringlets in his hair.

                    • 😉
                      no, i was honestly curious what these arias are! but haven’t listened to a single note of music today… full of suspense biting nails waiting for the business people to turn in the proposal.. once it’s out of your hand you could only sit and wait nervously until confirmation..
                      but anyhow, now that i visit here, i kept seeing suggesting for me to re-read (a) poppea in barbican, (b) sm in wigmore hall

                    • you should 😉 good luck with your proposal! how long is the wait usually?

                      I read the NY Times article about Antonacci. She sounds like a very interesting person, I am that much happier I got to see her live at least once, since she might retire soon. It’s also made me think about people who are very talented but don’t fit in with the programme, it’s a shame, really. We get all these Traviatas and even Nozzes and here are interesting singers that could do interesting things and a lot of times don’t get the opportunity.

                    • oh, it was done already, 5.05pm our local time, but was cutting extremely close given eastcoast deadline.. phew. that’s how i haven’t been doing much since except browing internet in zombie mode and making niice comments about ACA 😉
                      (instead of sleeping..)

                      i’m very glad you made the time to discover her! never seen her live myself, i have always been convinced she’d be one of the few people i’d enjoy hearing live, again based on reasons i’ve babbled about everytime i mentioned her name.. (and in fact i had been silently contemplating “sep at wigmore” as you kept mentioning, but with this deadline was simply not a chance.. so happy to read up on confirmation of my “instinct” as far as interesting singers go 🙂 )

                    • well, too bad this show was bad timing for you. Keep your eyes peeled for next year. I haven’t figured out her future schedule but I didn’t try to see if her fb is freeview.

        • i now exploring her monteverdi on tube, apparently she sang in quite a few recitals, isn’t this Orfeo’s line?

    • I like that she refuses labels, more singers of her sort should but I think they do what they can in order to get to make a living singing.

      actually, I bought the ticket because YOU said you liked her and I thought you usually like good singers 😉

      even when I heard the Radio 3 broadcast later on I thought “it’s not the same!” But have you heard this recital? It’s really made me want to explore Italian song, I think I might like it better than lieder (which is a bit hit and miss still).

      • and i was aware several times this month you mention “she’s singing here in Sep” back in May 😉
        Ah , great, i’ll check out her recital before the radio3 thingy (finally can listen to music again today, hurrah). let me leave 1 more link, as i have not heard her in italian songs but have in spanish

        (i’m with you on “it’s not the same!” when you hear it later after a live experience! that’s exactly how i felt seeing the munich romeo after my night at same event!! but for me if i give it sometimes (re-listening) i re-start to appreciate the things again within a performance while hearing it “a bit” different on radio and digesting it as a whole . but for an engaging singer, the being-there part is definitely a huge difference since we have eyes and 3-d hearing (and sound effect at the hall, which is very different than when recorded right at the front mic).

      • i just read she didn’t take any fee for this particular performance and donated all to the center

  2. i finally got around to listen to this.. have been shying away coz new music.. need a bit of time to get into.. man it’s intense! and one feel frustrated about/for this woman!

    • intense indeed! she was actually quite well behaved 😀

      • i felt the whole time like screaming “snap out of it woman!!” these other people calling in definitely makes it more desperate. though i kept thinking you really need to understand french to get most of this.. and for that her french pronunciation is really great.. but wonder if you can convey via music as well if blurry french?

        • I thought all the communication break down was funny as hell! And I am also optimistic enough to think that the woman is just bluffing.

          yes, in blurry French you add an extra layer of characterisation: she’s drunk 😀

  1. Pingback: La Voix humaine at San Francisco Opera | thadieu's opera rambling outlet

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