‘A Madwoman Lets It Rip’
“The extraordinary Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci has concentrated her career in Europe. Each appearance she makes in America, like her New York recital debut last year at Alice Tully Hall, is coveted by opera fans familiar with her intelligent and charismatic artistry.
So it was on Wednesday when an audience at the Rose Theater waited expectantly for Ms. Antonacci to present the American premiere of “Era la Notte,” a dramatic staging of four 17th-century Italian vocal works, lasting just over an hour and fashioned by this imaginative artist and the director Juliette Deschamps into a portrait of characters confronting love, abandonment, senseless combat and death.
When Ms. Antonacci finally appeared onstage, she looked like a madwoman. That was the idea.
The mood for “Era la Notte” (“It Was the Night”), presented here as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, was set by the musicians, soloists from the period-instrument orchestra Les Siècles, who played a subdued, dancelike passacalio by Biagio Marini. The simple set (by Cécile Degos) was dominated by a trellis in the rear, with rows of lighted candles. At the front of the stage was a shallow pool of water. Ms. Antonacci, wearing a rumpled cream-colored gown with gold embroidery, carried a bucket and some motley rags, like a fine lady who thinks herself a crazed washerwoman.
She then began a lament by Pietro Antonio Giramo in which the singer portrays a woman driven to irrational despair by the affliction of love. In the text (with English translations projected in supertitles), the woman says that she lacks the words, the music, to explain her feelings. Only her fury can break through the confusion.
The music is a classic example of the early-17th-century Italian penchant for exploring extremes of expression with vocal lines that alternately swoon, cry and sigh, and agitated instrumental writing. Ms. Antonacci eschewed conventionally beautiful singing to get at the emotional intensity of the music: longing, pain, even moments of futile fantasy.
Selected instrumental pieces by Marini were used as transitions between the other vocal works. The second one was Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna,” which is the lament of the mythical title character, who has been abandoned by her lover, Theseus. Ms. Antonacci sang it with a real white bird sitting on her extended finger, seemingly entranced by the singing until she ushered it into a small cage.
In the third piece, “Lagrime mie,” a lyrically elegant yet fraught vocal cantata by Barbara Strozzi, one of the very few published female composers from that era, Ms. Antonacci portrayed a man embittered by the indifference of the lovely Lidia.
The riveting conclusion of “Era la Notte” came with Ms. Antonacci’s performance of Monteverdi’s “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” an 18-minute tour de force from the composer’s Eighth Book of Madrigals. The piece tells the story, taken from Tasso’s epic poem “Gerusalemme Liberata,” of the Christian knight Tancredi, who falls in love with Clorinda, a warrior-maiden, a Saracen, who joins the Muslim forces.
During a fierce night battle, Clorinda, dressed as a man, is fatally wounded by Tancredi, who is horrified to discover her identity. With her last words, Clorinda asks to be baptized by Tancredi, which, she has come to believe, will save her spiritual life.
As performed by the arresting Ms. Antonacci, dressed in black pants and a shirt, wielding a sword, the metaphor of this work came through powerfully: love, especially when it involves breaching cultural differences, is the ultimate battle. The piece is mostly delivered in narrative lines by a character called Testo, with the dialogue of two lovers usually sung by two singers. Ms. Antonacci sang all the parts in her stunning performance. At the end, she collapsed into the pool of water, as real showers fell from above at the rear of the stage, snuffing out the candles.
She must come back to New York. The Metropolitan Opera should invite her to sing any role in any opera she wants.”
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, November 14, 2013
“Live from New York, it’s soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci! Lucky for us. Antonacci is considered one of those distinctive, uncategorizable singers who show up every once in a while to excite and inspire us, but never quite find the broader acceptance they deserve. Thus, she doesn’t sing at the Met and we have to hold on until performances like “Era la Notte,” which was on display twice last week at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. To say she captivated the audience would be an understatement.
Masters of the early Italian Baroque
“Era La Notte” is a performance piece created by Antonacci and director Juliette Deschamps, culled from music by early Italian Baroque composers: Giramo´s Lamento della Pazza, Monteverdi´s Lamento d’Arianna, Strozzi´s Lamento and, finally, Monteverdi´s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. (Transitional music is by Marini.)
You can tell by the names of these songs that this is not a light-hearted evening. This is not the Baroque of trills and thrills, but one of lament-filled texts that call for (that overused term!) a “singing actress,” with the emphasis on “actress,” to bring them to life.
Every nuance of the characters
Antonacci has been doing this piece for going on 10 years and she knows every corner of the music. This is not singing that astounds with its beauty (in this music, anyway), but chills with its remarkable understanding of every nuance of the characters. Indeed, her nano-insights into the music are key to the great success of the evening–which lasts just over an hour but provides audiences with a sumptuous feast to chew upon. No one goes home hungry.
It begins with a mad scene from Giramo that makes Donizetti’s Lucia seem lucid. The fragment of Monteverdi’s Arianna–whose lover has left her sola, perduta, abbandonata–is filled with incredible sadness. Antonacci switches gender for the Strozzi, where she portrays a man angered by his lover’s disinterest.
Antonacci pulls out all the stops
Finally, the soprano plays all the parts in Il Combattimento, from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals, a story of a Christian knight who accidentally kills his lover. Antonacci pulls out all the stops in this 18-minute monodrama about the downside of love, collapsing at the end in a pool of water, as the backdrop curtain of candles is doused (the scenic and lighting design and costumes by Cecile Degos, Dominique Bruguiere and Christian Lacroix, respectively, brought distinctive work that felt just right with the music.) The instrumental soloists of Les Siècles provided memorable accompaniment for Antonacci.
Looking back, I might have wished for a few lighter moments to break the unabiding sadness, but I guess the characters portrayed don’t have much to smile about. Gazing out into the Rose Theatre, it was clear that the audience surely did.
Hey, Mr. Gelb, how about bringing her to the Met? Maybe “Era La Notte” as part of a triptych with Poulenc’s LA VOIX HUMAINE and Schoenberg’s ERWARTUNG? (Okay, I’d settle for two.)”
Richard Sasanow, Broadway World, 18 November 2013