Amid Holy Days, Anna Caterina Antonacci Casts a Spell

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In one of those rare times when Christian and Jewish calendars align, Sunday was perhaps too holy, too sacred a day for the earthly and earthy sensuality on display in Anna Caterina Antonacci’s New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall. Still, it’s hard to fault the Italian soprano when she sings so divinely, and sure enough her program dedicated to French and Italian art song of the belle époque era pleased saints and sinners alike.

Antonacci has one of those rare gifts of bucking vocal classification, moving fluidly and organically beyond soprano and mezzo repertoire, and that liberating, languid air in her voice came through with the first breaths of Fauré’s Cinq melodies “de Venise,” a dreamy quintet of songs that come over like a warm breeze. A native of Ferrara, Antonacci nevertheless caressed the French language with a soft yet supple touch, drawing forth as much Gallic charm as she did Venetian imagery. The first half of the recital -- which alternated Fauré with Venezuelan-born, French-naturalized composer Reynaldo Hahn -- featured a decidedly different take on Venice with selections from Hahn’s ice-cream suite of songs titled Venezia.

This is postcard-picturesque Venice from the perspective of a Venezuelan-Frenchman that gives the singer much to play with as a musician and raconteur and it’s here that Antonacci truly shines. She is as gifted a storyteller as she is a singer, spinning narratives into golden threads with a delicate dichotomy of voluptuous outburst and breathless confidences. "Sopra l’acqu indormenzada" was seductive to the point of practically necessitating a parental advisory, while “L’avertimento” was enchantingly spellbinding and the pert “Che pecà!” bubbled with sun-dappled sarcasm and charming kvetching.

The recital’s second half ventured into more operatic territory with romances by Cilea and Mascagni, two composers more renowned for their operatic offerings than their art song canons. And there’s a bit of verismo-flavored connective tissue between the two spheres. Cilea’s three songs tested Antonacci’s range and pushed her further into the stratosphere, while Mascagni’s allowed her more time to luxuriate in operatic grandeur. Each word was distilled into its literal and metaphoric meanings with intellect and musical care before launching into the void with a gale-force.

With a follow-up of selections from Respighi’s Cinque canti all’antica, there was a further turn stylistically into the territory of early music, a neighborhood in which Antonacci established a handsome residence in her Naïve album Era la Notte. Here, she scaled back from the aural opulence of the preceding works to provide a streamlined, purity of tone that echoed with Monteverdian resonances, feeding nicely into Respighi’s subsequent song from Quattro liriche, “Sopra un’aria antica.”

After rounding out the program with a dessert wine of Refice’s Ombra di nube, Antonacci came back for three encores with her hypnotic pianist, Donald Sulzen, revisiting the first half’s bright yet substantial music with Gimenez’s “La Tempranica,” Tosti’s Neapolitan-infused “Marechiare” and Fauré’s “Au bord de l’eau.” With such a wholly immersive afternoon of songs expertly delivered on all cylinders, how Antonacci has made it this long without a New York operatic debut is criminal.