Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, a darling of the Parisian opera stages, puts on a fine display of her vocal range on the occasion of the American première of her production titled Era la Notte (in English translation, “It Was Night”). Originally staged in 2006, this performance is being presented in New York as part of the White Light Festival at the Lincoln Center.

© Magalie Bouchet
© Magalie Bouchet

The program, constructed by Antonacci herself according to the program notes, is built around four sung movements, taken from the works by Italian Renaissance composers, with instrumental selections from the Op. 22 of Biagio Marini, a composer who wrote during the same era, acting as prologue, epilogue and intermezzi. The dramaturgical progression of this work is constructed as a series of transformations. Beginning with the portrayal of a character made mad by the virtue of heartbreak – as furnished by the highly spirited cantata Lamento della pazza (“The madwoman’s lament”) by Pietro Antonio Giramo – Antonacci next takes it down a notch to regain some sense and dignity as an abandoned woman in Lamento d’Arianna, curious also for being the only surviving excerpt of Claudio Monteverdi’s lost opera L’Arianna.

Next, the singer recreates Lagrime mie (“My Tears”), shedding tears as a spurned lover, the protagonist of a cantata by one of the rare female composers whose works had been published during this period, Barbara Strozzi. Finally, the soprano dons an armor to sing another work by Monteverdi, Il Combattimento di Tancredi and Clorinda (“The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda”), which is delivered almost entirely in third person as it retells a tragic story dating back to the Crusades in which a Christian warrior murders his love, a Muslim woman who confronts him in battle disguised as a man. Clearly, matters of the heart are the fil rouge, and dramatically so, and as the evening wears on, the audience is intended to be taken on a journey emerging from the darkness of insanity (as displayed by Antonacci’s protagonist early on) towards the lightness of transcendence: as Tancredi watches his lover bleed to death, she begs him to baptize her so that they can eventually be reunited. Hence, the thematic connection with the title of this festival.

All of this sounds incredibly well considered and intelligently constructed, and for the most part it is, but as a theatrical event (credited to the director Juliette Deschamps) it doesn’t entirely succeed, as the various production elements rarely add up to more than a sum of its parts. Antonacci is a talented singer and has a lovely stage presence, but the entire evening feels mostly like a glorified recital or a showcase of her vocal skills, with the staging and design acting as something of an accessory, or a backdrop. The stage is mostly bare, save for a few key props, a troth of water that runs the length of the apron (which eventually turns red with blood) and a towering construction littered with long-tapered candles that grace the far upstage area of the playing space. Personally speaking, the closing of this production ironically felt like an apt summation of the event I had just witnessed. In the final moments, as the lights dim, a hissing spray of water descends upon the candles (supposedly to extinguish them completely to achieve the final blackout), but instead the water runs on and on, then apparently gives up, leaving sporadic patches of candles still lit. Much like the incompleteness of its final stage effect, Era la Notte feels spotty and a bit short on delivery.

***11