Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Queens, Heroines and Killer Heels

Straight to the point. WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, GET ANNA CATERINA ANTONACCI ONTO DISC A LITTLE MORE OFTEN? Apparently she records for Naive - label of the year at the Gramophone Awards, btw - but a bit sparingly, since there's only one disc to date, 'Era la notte', made a good while ago. Wigmore Live is releasing her latest recital on CD. Otherwise...this is crazy.

Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall, and it was one of those nights you don't forget in a hurry. Music-making in 3D HD, if you like; music-making that lifts you clean off your seat while you ponder whether critics are allowed to cheer if they want to; music-making that leaves you wondering why every concert can't be just as warm, affectionate and exciting. This was the OAE and Sir Roger Norrington, with Antonacci centre stage.
The first of five OAE concerts under the umbrella of 'Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers', the concert in the event wasn't so much about ladykillers as the killer heels. Anna Caterina strode in wearing a black leather-effect satin dress with a fuschia wrap and the said accoutrements on her feet. And pow - she becomes Medea in the aria 'Dei tuoi figlia la madre' from Cherubini's eponymous opera. Medea pleads with her husband not to leave her, yet accusing him, berating him, despairing, pleading and furious at the same time. "Crudel! Crudel!" - a scene played out all too often, one feels, in every street in the land.

Then those joys of Gluck: sandwiched between the Dance of the Blessed Spirits (plaudits to flautist Lisa Beznosiuk) and Dance of the Furies, 'O Malheureuse Iphigenie' - the bereaved princess's aria from Iphigenie en Tauride that Berlioz singled out for special admiration. Berlioz himself was the highlight of Antonacci's contribution: from Les Troyens, not Cassandre, this time, but Dido and 'Je vais mourire', a very long way from Purcell's lament. Again, pow - straight into character. She's mesmerising - voice, diction, personality, charisma, the works. At moments like: "Venus, rends-moi ton fils", she wields the artistic equivalent of a razor with which to slice up your soul.

I've been trying to think of other singers who are capable of effecting such a complete transformation from aria to aria, a complete sense of possession by the personality they are conveying. Domingo. Callas. Anyone else? That's the calibre of her artistry. Antonacci is not a Callas - in terms of size, her voice probably won't stretch to Tosca. But there is something about the timbre and the power of the stagecraft that really is reminiscent of her.

An insider's note on Twitter tipped us off to "clap lots so you get the encore", and we did, and we got it, and it was Carmen - the Gypsy Song from the beginning of Act II. It is about five years now since Antonacci and Kaufmann's unforgettable performances at Covent Garden; since then, a stunning development. This time the song put me in mind of Ravel's Tzigane, cranking up the tempo and the spellbound atmosphere to the taut ecstasy of the conclusion, with a sense of jazzy freedom in the singing, the melody's turns transformed into the embellishments they are. Magic. Tip-off: she is singing the role in Paris in December. Here is the Eurostar website.

Whether Haydn and Bizet were ladykillers is maybe a moot point, but their symphonies, topping and tailing the programme respectively, captured our hearts via the extraordinary hands, feet and eyebrows of Norrington. When Sir Roger gets his teeth into this type of repertoire, there are few (except possibly Ivan Fischer) to better him.

Yes, you did read that here, on vibrato-loving JDCMB - because this goes beyond such concerns. The strings of the OAE today are accomplished enough to make a beautiful sound without vibrato when necessary, but in any case this music rarely demands them to keep still for long enough to require much of it. The "battle of the bulge" in "early" music is largely over - and we won that, for now those unsightly aural spare tyres that replaced expressive notes have become the exception rather than the rule in HIP (maybe someone spotted that in Leopold Mozart's book they were just an exercise to develop bow control).

It's striking to realise that I remember, clear as spring water, every Norrington concert I have ever been to, no matter how long ago, whether I loved or loathed them - and it's usually one or the other, with very little in between. That in itself signals something. And I can scarcely believe he is 78.

Haydn's Symphony No.85 'La Reine' had everything that one longs for Haydn to have, plus some: humour, bounce, long lines, joined-up phrasing, clarity, airiness and terrific affection. Every note felt two hundred per cent alive as Sir Roger, with a flick of a wrist or finger or ankle dished up a detail, conjured a whirl of countermelody or turned the bassline into a ballet. All this was true as well for the Bizet Symphony in C, the nearest thing to Haydn ever produced by a French composer: delicacy, grace and detail were offset by true, glorious oomph. (My only period-pain all evening was to wish the first oboe would play a decent modern instrument, because to judge from the one he was using there have been some positive developments in oboe manufacture during the 20th century, and it needed it, and so does Bizet. My teeth still hurt just thinking about the second movement solo. Sorry.)

The arrangement of the orchestra on stage produced an exemplary balance - and this is important, because I often despair of the balance of treble and bass in the RFH, feeling there can be too much of the latter. It's simple. First violins to the left, second violins to the right, cellos and violas respectively left and right centre, and the double basses in a row across the back. It works even if you haven't got the brilliant Chi-Chi Nwanoku leading the basses, and if you have, and we did, that's a plus.

The OAE is on amazing form at the moment. If every orchestral concert was as delicious as this one, I'd show up every night, because then there'd be no need to stop walking on air.

Just for fun, here's Anna Caterina singing Moon River.