If Anna Caterina Antonacci had taken a more conventional path, the Italian soprano would likely be enjoying the peak of a major international career. She possesses a remarkable vocal instrument, darkly rich in timbre yet crystalline in expression, and an electrifying stage presence. Yet while she has been rapturously received in Europe, her appearances across the Atlantic have been all too few.
With a voice lying between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, Antonacci long made a specialty out of a rarified repertory: Rossini, Monteverdi, and Gluck. Eight years ago, dissatisfied with her vocal and professional limitations as a mezzo, she began working on her technique and top extension to take on pure soprano roles. Yet still highly selective in her repertory and engagements, Antonacci has never attracted the attention of a major American opera house or record label, and only now, at the age of 51, has she embarked on her first American recital tour.
It was well worth the wait. On Wednesday night, Antonacci made her Washington debut in a spellbinding recital presented by Vocal Arts DC at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Sensitively partnered by the pianist Donald Sulzen, Antonacci offered an intelligently selected and vividly realized program of 31 French and Italian art songs, mostly from the belle époque: Fauré, Hahn, Cilea, Mascagni, Tosti, Respighi, and Refice. If the songs were not all first-rate, they nonetheless played to Antonacci’s greatest strength: a rare ability to unite words and music with poetic insight and visceral drama. The music making was potent.
Demonstrating a keen musical intelligence and a sensitivity and commitment to the material, Antonacci sang with crisp diction, impeccable taste, dramatic urgency, and a resonant middle-register. Her singing was more distinctive than plush or pretty, and her top extension betrayed her former life as a mezzo with an occasional lack of focus and finesse. Yet her voice was a singularly and freely expressive instrument, particularly when coupled with her graceful yet naturally commanding stage presence, and the songs often took on an intimate yet powerfully personal quality.
The opening selections, Fauré’s” Cinq mélodies de Venise,” were relatively subdued in impact, if tastefully sung. More persuasive were Hahn’s “Deux études latines” and, in particular, his song cycle “Venezia,” which drew from the singer greater dramatic immediacy, a richer range of vocal color and interpretive nuance, and a deeper sense of personal involvement. From the all-Italian second half of the program, most memorable were the five songs from Respighi and Refice’s “Ombra di nube,” all sung with exquisite phrasing, greater control of her upper register, and an expert sense of vocal drama.
Antonacci concluded the evening with her lone homage to America: a charming encore of Mercer and Mancini’s “Moon River.”
Let us hope that the Atlantic doesn’t prove wider than a mile for Antonacci in the future. She is a dream maker.
Anna Caterina Antonacci performed one night only, Wednesday, April 11, 2012, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre.
Listen to Anna Caterina Antonacci sing “Moon River.”
Listen to Anna Caterina Antonacci sing “Habanera” from the opera Carmen.