Road Show: Anna Caterina Antonacci in Paris

ERIC MYERS discovers how the French capital has won the heart of the distinguished Italian soprano.

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Antonacci in La Voix Humaine at the Opéra Comique, 2013
© Bohumil Kostohryz 2014
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With a thirteen-year-old son to raise, Anna Caterina Antonacci tries to spend at least six months of the year at home with him in Geneva. Doing more concerts than operas helps makes that possible — she doesn't always have to be gone for eight weeks at a time. But when she does have to work away from home, her favorite place to do so is Paris. It's the city that took her to its heart and launched her in an entirely new artistic direction.

"When I sang Cassandre in Les Troyens at the Châtelet, it turned into an unexpected success for me," recalls the soprano, who hails from the Puglia region of southern Italy. "And it changed the course of my career. I discovered the French repertoire and adopted it, and the French adopted mein a way. After Cassandre came Carmen, and Rachel in La Juiveand the mélodiesthe art songs — Fauré, Debussy, Hahn, Duparc — and more recently La Voix Humaine and Fauré's Pénélopewhich I sang in concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. This repertoire really belongs to my soul now."

Antonacci finds Parisian audiences particularly eager and responsive. "They're a bit like New York audiences in terms of their involvement and their preparation," she says. "They have a strong cultural base, and they are constantly going out and attending cultural events, so they bring a lot of knowledge and experience with them. They have a curiosity — an interest in discovering new things. In Paris audiences, I've always found an attention, a vitality — the same feeling I found in New York two years ago when I gave my recital. I was impressed with that warmth and sense of interaction I had with the audience. It's extraordinary to feel that."

When in Paris, she usually stays in an apartment in the nineteenth arrondissement. This off-the-beaten-path neighborhood hides one of the city's jewels, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a project of Baron Haussmann dating from 1867. Created on a sloping hill and filled with man-made caverns, waterfalls, grottoes and follies, it is a true fantasy landscape within the city and one of Antonacci's favorite haunts. "I used to bring my son there when he was a toddler," she says, "and I used to jog there quite a bit. I still do, occasionally. The whole park is lovely and mysterious, and it's very tied in with my life in Paris."

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The Opéra Comique
© Hemis/Alamy 2014

Another part of the city that Antonacci loves is the area that straddles the fifth and sixth arrondissements, which has long been a neighborhood of cinemas that specialize in revivals. "I love going to see classic films in the revival houses in that quartier!" she enthuses. "There must be at least a half-dozen of them. You can always see some of the greatest films in the history of movies there, any time of the day or night. That's where I discovered the great directors — Renoir, Carné, Fellini, De Sica — and Visconti, who is a particular favorite of mine." Equally close to her heart are the historic Parisian opera houses and concert halls in which she has performed. "The Opéra Comique is wonderful! It's very much intact — when you walk through the couloirs, the stairways, you can practically see the dust of the centuries. All the original architectural elements have been so well preserved. I find myself imagining the great singers of the past who saw the same details that I rest my own hand upon. It was thrilling to perform Carmen in the very theater where it was created — to feel the intimacy of that space where, no matter where audience members are sitting, they can see the faces and the expressions of the singers."

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The view from Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, with Montmarte in the distance
© Tibor Bognár/age fotostock 2014

During off-nights, Antonacci enjoys taking advantage of Paris's bounty of live theatrical offerings. "The Comédie-Française, bien entendu. I've spent some amazing nights there. And the ticket prices are quite reasonable. I really find myself inspired by some of the great actors that I've seen onstage, and their way of treating the text — how they move, how they project their voices. I find that classical theater is very closely tied to opera, and also to the texts of the French art songs I sing. I've sung in several productions of Rossini's Ermione, and when Racine's Andromache was playing in Paris two years ago, I ran to see it. Of course, the libretto of the Rossini opera and the Racine play are completely different, and it was wonderful to compare the two. I've seen some very fine French actors onstage — Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu. One of the greatest evenings I've had in the theater was seeing Anouk Aimée and, just before his death, Philippe Noiret, together in Love Letters. I adored that. It was so moving. And to see the two of them onstage together — the simplicity, their diction, their subtlety — it was a great lesson for me. A lesson in interpretation."

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The art nouveau interior of Julien
© Studio 1 + 1 2014

When she's in town for a short visit, Antonacci often stays at l'Hôtel de la Place des Vosges. "It's magnifique," she says. "You enter through a small courtyard, and you just feel hidden away from the world there. Sublime. And in St. Germain-des-Prés is l'Hôtel de l'Abbaye in the Rue Cassette. That's also a very quiet place to stay in the center of one of the most beautiful parts of Paris." As for dining, her favorite haunts are restaurants with a real sense of history. Bofinger, with its belle époque decor, is one. Another is Julien, an apogee of art nouveau. She also enjoys rubbing elbows with the ghosts of Hemingway, Cocteau and Gide at La Closerie des Lilas. After a night at the Opéra Comique, she often goes to the late-nineteenth-century Aux Lyonnais nearby. "It's so good you can almost never get a table," she sighs.

But no matter where she may go in the world, Antonacci takes a very special keepsake with her to remind her of home. In recent years, she has always tried to return to her native Puglia for the region's famed olive harvest. "I take one of the olive branches with me, and I keep it for the whole year, bringing it with me wherever I travel. It started when I happened to find an olive leaf in my pocket at the end of a harvest, and I kept it like some kind of talisman. Now I take a branch from the harvest every year. I've become very attached to this tradition. For me, that represents a dream — a moment of absolute detachment that I can always remember and return to." spacer 

ERIC MYERS is the author of three books. He has contributed articles to Playbill, Time Out New York and The New York Times Magazine and Arts and Leisure sections. 

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