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BWW Reviews: Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci Is Only HUMAINE in Poulenc Opera at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall

It's an old story: Woman meets man. Woman loses man...and loses him over and over again on a party-line. Luckily, the woman is Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci and the composer of LA VOIX HUMAINE is Francis Poulenc. Together, they made for a fascinating performance at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.

The high-strung heroine of this monodrama (or mono-opera)--simply called "Elle" or "Her"--is caught during her last phone conversation with a lover who has left her for another woman. The call is interrupted several times by the antiquated telephone system that survived in France until fairly recently, with several parties sharing a single line, and she becomes more agitated each time they are cut off, though always in control.

Needless to say, it is a tour-de-force for a great singing actress--and Antonacci is probably one of the premier examples of this rara avis in the opera world today. She gets all the nuances of the character--not settling to show her as simply a wounded woman (or, worse, a hysteric) who has survived a recent suicide attempt.

Antonacci clearly knew what she was doing when she chose this piece, which plays to her strengths as both an actress and singer, with crystalizing insights into Elle's unhappy present and better times, taking full advantage of her penetrating sound. She is up to all the challenges of Poulenc's music, which is, frankly, far more interesting than the storyline and seems more modern and poetic than his score for DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES. Donald Sulzen provided the excellent piano accompaniment for the evening--more collaborator than accompanist, really, for the two seemed completely in tune.

The opera's libretto is by the avant garde writer/director Jean Cocteau (based on his own 1928 play), who also staged and costumed the original production at the Opera Comique in Paris. These days, the libretto doesn't seem very avant garde (or very feminist, for that matter) but it hardly matters in the hands of any of the acting singers who have been famous for the role: Denise Duval, the original Blanche in CARMÉLITES, for whom the work was written in 1958; the legendary Madga Olivero; Julia Migenes (who starred in a film of it) and numerous others. It would seem to have been perfect for Maria Callas--for whom it was originally suggested to Poulenc by his publisher--but perhaps it might have been cutting a little too close to home for her.

VOIX took up the second part of the program. Rather than choosing another operatic work for solo voice--or counting on the 40-minute piece to fill the evening--Antonacci chose other French music that nicely built up the tenor of the evening, most based on poetry by French masters. (The last time I heard the opera, it was in the odd company of Dallapiccola's IL PRIGIONIERO and, of all things, Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI at the San Francisco Opera.)

She started with a brief work by Berlioz about another unhappy woman, "La mort d'Ophelie," or "The Death of Ophelia," dreamily set to a poem by Ernest Lagouve about the same character from Shakespeare's HAMLET, followed by Debussy's "Chansons de Bilitis," text by Pierre Louys, which is more recitative than melody for the voice, taking full advantage of Antonacci's wonderful diction and urgent acting. Then came the touching, knowing "La vie anterieure" ("A Previous Life"),to a text by Baudelaire and a cycle of seven brief songs by Poulenc, "La fraicheur et le feu" ("The coolness and the fire"). I was especially taken by the last of the songs, "La grand riviere qui va," which she tossed off in a sophisticated, perceptive manner.

The last selection of the songs on the program seemed, at first, an unusual choice: Ravel's "Kaddish" from "Deux melodies hebraiques." Set to the Jewish prayer for the dead, Ravel's music was ornate and entirely fitting for the subject, with Antonacci throwing herself solemnly into the text. Perhaps, it gave a look forward to the fate of "Elle" in LA VOIX HUMAINE, before we even knew it was coming.


Photo by Serge Derossi-Naive

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