This Easter, New Yorkers had a rare chance to hear soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci in Alice Tully Hall. It was only Antonacci’s second appearance in the city, but based on the warm welcome she received from the audience, her reputation preceded her. And by the end of this outstanding recital, it was clear that the city has been missing out on her artistry.

Anna Caterina Antonacci © Serge Derossi / Naïve
Anna Caterina Antonacci
© Serge Derossi / Naïve

The Italian singer has carved out an eclectic repertoire ranging from Monteverdi and Handel to Rossini and Berlioz, sidestepping the big Verdi and Puccini roles. Somewhere in between a soprano and a mezzo, her voice has an earthy solidity that always has a human, soulful center. While this program of intimate French and Italian art songs from the Belle Époque was heavy on music often described as “languorous” or “enchanting,” she was never inert or passive. Indeed, her ability to communicate with the audience and infuse her personality into the strictures of art song was fairly amazing.

The first half of the program was French mélodies – songs by Fauré and Hahn – but nonetheless had an Italian cast, with Fauré’s Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’ and excerpts from Reynaldo Hahn’s Venezia. Together with Fauré’s L’horizon chimérique, this lent a distinctly watery cast, with Donald Sulzen’s accompaniment providing a variety of barcaroles, waves, and swaying boats. Antonacci showed elegant French and a smooth legato, and a kind of spontaneity with the rhythms that made them sound like they had just been composed. “Diane, Séléné” from L’horizon chimérique had a beautiful placidity, and Reynaldo Hahn’s “Tyndaris” (from Études latines) had a welcome simplicity.

But it was in the Italian-language material where she really shone. In Hahn’s catchy “L’avertimento” from Venezia, warning men off a certain Nana, her increasingly ornamented verses became more and more playful and joking, while “La barcheta” invited us on a gondola ride that few could resist. Donald Sulzen’s playing was light and always supportive, though sometimes verged on the bland.

Antonacci’s upper register has a penetrating, metallic quality that effortlessly filled Alice Tully Hall, but sometimes sounded out of place in the softer realms of French song. In the more extroverted and effusive Italian songs of the second half, it was thrilling. Perhaps it should not be surprising that songs by Ciléa and Mascagni, now primarily known as operatic composers, would be operatic, but the slippery, constantly-modulating harmonies and picturesque poems of these selections created a continuity with the French works of the first half. Ciléa’s “Serenata” had a dark and surprising undercurrent of anger, while the big calls of “Dov’eri?” (“Where are you?”) in “Nel ridestarmi” soared into enormous high notes. In three Tosti songs, her sincerity was again spellbinding.

The most stylistically interesting works were a selection of Respighi songs that looked back to the Baroque, with a pared-down accompaniment and seconda prattica-like tone-painting and sudden modulations, given a delicate and sensitive treatment by Antonacci and Sulzen. In “Sopra un’aria antica,” the titular “old aria” is heard in the piano, gradually melting away to a rhapsodic, thoroughly modern conclusion. The program closed with a quiet, hypnotizing rendition of Refice’s popular “Ombra di nube.”

Antonacci’s three encores brought out the flirty, sparky side of her singing, with Giménez’s “Tarantúla,” another Tosti song, and finally ending with more water, in Fauré’s hushed “Au bord de l’eau.”

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