SAN ANTONIO: Segreto, Voix Humaine
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In Review > North America

Il Segreto di Susanna & La Voix Humaine 

Opera San Antonio

In Review San Antonio Susanna hdl 415
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Susanna) and Wayne Tigges (Conte Gil) in Opera San Antonio's production of Il Segreto di Susanna
© Greg Harrison 2015
In Review San Antonio Voix lg 415
Antonacci in La Voix Humaine
© Greg Harrison 2015

W ho knew whiplash could be so pleasurable? In her Texas debut, soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci inhabited comedic and tragic roles in a double bill (seen Mar. 12) that closed Opera San Antonio’s inaugural season of fully staged productions. She was a countess whose jealous husband finds her in flagrante with her surreptitious flame (well, ember) in Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s slight but charming Segreto di Susanna . Then the mood darkened as Antonacci portrayed a woman trying vainly to mask her devastation as she speaks by phone with her ex-lover in La Voix Humaine , with music by Francis Poulenc after a play by Jean Cocteau. Both works were sung in their original languages, with English supertitles. 

Antonacci has traveled this two-way street before, notably two years ago at the Opéra Comique, where La Voix Humaine had its 1959 world premiere. The venue for the San Antonio production was considerably more compact — the 230-seat Alvarez Studio Theater in the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The tight space necessitated a reduced orchestra of nine San Antonio Symphony players plus piano (Aaron Likness) for Il Segreto di Susanna, conducted with crisp authority by Andrés Cladera. In La Voix Humaine, the orchestra and conductor were benched in favor of a lone pianist, Antonacci’s longtime collaborator Donald Sulzen; not least among the joys of this performance was the trusting teamwork they evinced.

The stripped-down accompaniment substantively affected Poulenc’s monodrama. In the work’s more familiar form, the orchestration enrobes the unnamed woman’s plight in a sensuality that is gorgeous but somewhat distancing; it calls for a certain coolness from the soprano. The piano version is starker and more prickly, leaving the protagonist emotionally naked and allowing the soprano greater expressive intensity. And expressive intensity is Antonacci’s specialty.

Her instrument was consistently lustrous, her French diction precise, her singing accurate and (crucially for a role that is more recitative than melody) rhythmically alert. She was fully in control of her resources as she applied her enormous palette of vocal colors and inflections to portray, with an almost unbearably lifelike immediacy, a woman losing control. She could bring an ocean of contradictory emotions to a phrase as simple as “Très bon.” Every syllable in this performance cut to the quick, as did Antonacci’s mobile face and astute body language, their communicative power amplified by the close quarters. 

Toward the end, Antonacci’s physical theatrics may have verged on scenery-chewing, but this was consistent with stage director James Darrah’s conception of the work. The Los Angeles design collective Chromatic, of which Darrah is a member, also designed the set, whose most prominent item of furnishing, downstage center, was not the usual bed but a clawfoot bathtub. Still clothed, the woman stepped into the tub just before the end as she told her ex on the phone, “I was about to say, out of habit, ‘See you soon.’ … I doubt it.” (Antonacci gave that last statement, “J’en doute,” a particularly chilling coloration of despair mixed with cynical wit.) The bathtub suggested more strongly than a bed that the distraught woman intended to kill herself. 

In Wolf-Ferrari’s “intermezzo,” as the composer characterized it, Countess Susanna’s secret is her fondness for cigarettes, an acceptable upper-crust naughtiness at the time of the work’s premiere in 1909. The sprightly music is a farrago of styles. It recalls, by turns, Mozart, Puccini and Verdi, with hints of Wagner and Beethoven. If the score unfolds without memorable tunes, it provides ample scope for Antonacci’s expressive chops. 

In a quarrelsome exchange between Susanna and her husband (powerful bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, showing an authentic flair for buffo), Antonacci sang with a dramatic ferocity that would have been altogether appropriate for Floria Tosca’s Act II encounter with Scarpia. Her aria about the joy of smoking, “O gioia la nube leggera” — “the gossamer mist rising in azure rings,” according to Claude Aveling’s translation from the Italian — was an ecstatic love song. 

Fine as Antonacci and Tigges were, the show-stealer was the mute servant, Santé, played with delicious aplomb by Darrah. As director, he brought a deft and sometimes surprising comedic touch to all the roles in Il Segreto di Susanna. A master stroke: he had Tigges’s Count Gil leave the house with his hat and umbrella, but barefoot. 

The set for both works, credited to Chromatic members Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, comprised drops painted to resemble Venetian plaster walls. The settee, chair and chaise longue in Il Segreto di Susanna accurately reflected early-twentieth-century Italian design. A telephone stand at the rear, framed in a series of doorways, remained in place for the Poulenc, establishing an inevitable progression from the phone to the tub. spacer 


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