The Italian singer Anna Caterina Antonacci made a rare appearance in New York, her third in four years, at Alice Tully Hall in a recital of French songs. The audience who braved the snow and cold was rewarded with a performance of exquisite intensity and unforgettable beauty.

Anna-Caterina Antonacci © Benjamin Ealovega
Anna-Caterina Antonacci
© Benjamin Ealovega

From the moment of her appearance with her pianist Donald Sulzen, even before she opened her mouth, Ms Antonacci commanded attention with her quiet concentration. Her voice hardly needed any warm up as she plunged into her first selection, Berlioz's La mort d’Ophelie. Her high notes may not have a free extension of a soprano, but they were lyrical and clear, and her middle voice is dark and yet warm. The next selection of three songs by Debussy, Chansons de Bilitis, showed off Ms Antonacci’s clear and impeccable French diction as she began to draw the audience into the intimate world of her art song. The second song, La Chevelure (The Hair), with a lover telling a woman of a dream of having her hair around his neck, perhaps unintentionally anticipates the ending of La voix humaine, as the woman in the song winds the telephone chord around her neck.

After Duparc’s La vie antérieure came the highlight of the first half, a seven-song cycle La Fraîcheur et le feu by Poulenc. These songs of contrast, the coolness and the fire, challenged both the singer and pianist in their varying tempi and shifting scales. Ms Antonacci was particularly impressive in negotiating low passages, as in slow “Unis la fraicheur et le feu” and the ironic passage at the end of “Homme au sourire tendre”. The first half of the recital concluded with a heart-wrenching Yiddish song of mourning, Kaddish, by Ravel.

The songs in the first half, substantial and challenging as they were, were just a prelude to Poulenc's La voix humaine after the intermission. Ms Antonacci changed from a demure gown of black lace to a bright multi-colored long house coat. A plastic orange phone (without chord) was placed on a small glass table on stage. For the next 40 minutes or so, the hall was transformed into a bedroom of a woman conducting a desperate phone conversation with a lover who was leaving her. Ms Antonacci sang and acted the one-way phone conversation, accompanied by piano, in one of the most mesmerizing theatrical performances I have ever witnessed.

Those of us of a certain age remember the times when there was no cell phone, nor even an answering machine, to connect us to our significant others instantaneously. We would spend hours waiting anxiously by the phone that sometimes never rang. The anxiety, suspicion, vain hope, brief joy, despair and finally resignation of an end of a love affair in this old world were brilliantly captured by Jean Cocteau in his text, and set even more powerfully to music by Poulenc. It was helpful to have the English supertitles of the French text during this portion of the recital, to prevent any distracting page turning. The readily available translation of the text also brought more immediacy to the happenings on stage.

The drama began with the woman “Elle” trying to get the other unrelated party on the phone line to hang up. Finally undisturbed, on the phone with her lover, she spun a story of a happy evening with a friend, a plan to visit her in the country, telling him she was alright. Then her conversation turns darker as she admitted to having taken pills the night before to kill herself, and confessed that it was a lie that she had gone out that evening with a friend. When she revealed the depth of her sadness at the end of the affair, however, all she got from the other end of the line was a lover who wanted his letters back, a lover who was not even calling her from his own house. As she realized that the affair was truly over, and that her lover has no desire other than to be rid of her, she quietly resolved to commit suicide by winding the telephone chord around her neck.

It takes a strong singing actress to pull off this complicated one woman mini opera, but Ms Antonacci brilliantly succeeded. She cried, laughed, shouted, begged, cajoled, wept and otherwise completely embodied the character of a desperately unhappy woman trying to maintain her last connection with her lover. Her singing was at times more a song speech, but throughout she maintained control of the difficult score. The score is at times lyrical, interrupted by sudden jumping of scales but never chromatic. Mr Sulzen’s contribution was significant throughout the evening, but even more so in La voix humaine, as the piano played the ringing of the telephone, which then became the echo of the woman’s pounding heart.

At the end of the long dialogue with her vanishing lover, the woman, emotionally spent, begged the lover to hang up. She repeated “Je t’aime” until it became a quiet whisper as the life was drained of her. The audience remained quiet for a few seconds, as they were transported from an emotional journey of incomparable depth and beauty.