A critic once opined that there was nothing more beautiful than watching Anna Caterina Antonacci suffer; to that, I add that there is nothing as irresistible as watching her flirt. With a sly smile and a knowing wink, Antonacci had her audience in the palm of her hand within her first few phrases. Not that her programme was an audience-pleaser by any means, comprised of mostly unfamiliar song cycles by Respighi, Britten, Poulenc and Nadia Boulanger. Though the voice perhaps has lost a bit of its sheen over time, Antonacci’s customary textual acuity and charismatic stage presence made the strongest possible case for these unjustly neglected works.

Anna Caterina Antonacci © Jason Daniel Shaw
Anna Caterina Antonacci
© Jason Daniel Shaw

Respighi’s Deità silvane was a sumptuously romantic start to the evening, depicting the languid nymphs and shadowy grottos of Antonio Rubino’s Symbolist text. Unsurprisingly for such a masterful orchestrator, Respighi's piano accompaniment depicts a wide palette of colours, and Donald Sulzen tackled the demanding, Debussy-esque harmonies beautifully. Antonacci gave a passionate, operatic reading of the score, filling the hall with lustrous sound and tapering her sound to a velvety whisper in the leisurely waltz of Egle. Best of all was the final movement, Antonacci and Sulzen achieving an almost organ-like sound to depict the titular twilight.

Though roughly contemporaneous with Respighi, Nadia Boulanger’s settings of Symbolist poetry occupy a completely distinct sound world, more akin to the sober mélodies of Fauré. With their unobtrusive accompaniment and spare vocal line, it would be easy to categorize the songs as salon music; however, Antonacci dug into the songs with such hypnotic intensity that it was impossible to dismiss them. Antonacci coloured the text beautifully, lending a melancholy to the optimistic romanticism of two songs from Les heures claires. Perhaps the most spellbinding moment of the evening was Mon cœur, sung in a hushed whisper and unbearably poignant.

Britten chose five of Auden’s poems for his first published song cycle On this island, a satirical criticism of contemporary society from a disillusioned 23-year old Britten. Musically, the cycle draws upon influences as diverse as Handel and cabaret. The opening Let the florid music praise! is full of quasi-Baroque melismas, benefiting from Antonacci’s extensive experience in Handel’s operas. Antonacci seemed hampered by the awkward word setting of the first two songs, though she explored the expressive capabilities of Seascape and Nocturne as if it were her native tongue. These two songs also displayed Sulzen’s playing at its best, the striking harmonies and block chords of Nocturne looking forward to the composer’s Peter Grimes. Antonacci and Sulzen also clearly relished the final song, a nightmarish take on cabaret music, Antonacci digging into the text with glee and achieving the perfect balance between sexiness and satire.

Though Antonacci has long been associated with the works of Poulenc, his 1956 Le travail du peintre is worlds away from the louche sensuality of his more popular works. Set to Éluard’s poetry on contemporary artists they both admired, Poulenc’s score is unashamedly modernist, particularly in the caustic harmonies of Pablo Picasso. Only Juan Gris offers anything approaching Poulenc’s usual gift for melodic lyricism, though Antonacci and Sulzen phrased the song with a wonderful ambiguousness. Throughout the cycle, they wonderfully captured the colours and textures of the text, as if conjuring an art gallery inside Wigmore Hall. Two encores, Frescobaldi’s Se l’aura spira and Fauré’s Au bord de l’eau sent the audience home thrilled after a vivid evening of storytelling.

****1