SFOpera - Anna Caterina Antonacci: An Important Presence on the Opera Stage

Anna Caterina Antonacci: An Important Presence on the Opera Stage

Sopranos often hesitate to perform a part closely identified with a legend like Callas, Sutherland or Nilsson. But what about a role that is forever associated with Sophia Loren? What opera singer can follow in those special footsteps?

The answer is Anna Caterina Antonacci, an Italian diva of striking beauty, vocal sensitivity, and dramatic presence, a true singing actor who is unique on today’s opera stage.

In Two Women, a new opera by Marco Tutino, based on the 1958 Alberto Moravia novel La Ciociara that was the basis of the 1960 Vittorio de Sica/Loren film. San Francisco has a rare opportunity to see this unusually gifted singing actress in a role that virtually no one else could fill.

“She is the kind of singer, said Maestro Riccardo Muti recently, “that when she walks onstage, you realize there is an important presence. When I decided to do Gluck’s Armide, immediately I thought of Antonacci. In fact I don’t remember if I chose Antonacci and then the opera, or the opera and then Antonacci.”

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has performed and recorded with her, said: “I love many singers. But she’s one I also admire, especially for her integrity. She’s not someone who will adapt to certain roles because she has to. She listens to her own feeling and to the music.”

Antonacci’s repertoire is as unusual as her vocal and dramatic skills, encompassing Bizet and Monteverdi, Handel and Berlioz, Rossini and Poulenc. Besides the leading role in Two Women, she appears in San Francisco Opera this season as Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a work rarely heard today, especially with a cast of this caliber (including Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel)

In a conversation soon before San Francisco Opera’s Summer season, the dynamic Antonacci spoke about the role of Cesira in Two Women and other milestones in her remarkable career.

What prompted you to take the leading role in this opera based on Moravia’s Two Women? Did Tutino write it with you in mind?
Yes, Marco Tutino composed this opera knowing that I would be the interpreter. I had already performed an opera by Marco, ten years ago at La Scala—Vita, based on the play Wit, by Margaret Edson, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. In this case too, there was a cult film, this time directed by Mike Nichols with Emma Thompson. Vita was one of the most intense and extraordinary experiences of my career. I look forward to a similar cathartic experience with Two Women.
Does a new work like this require unusual preparation?
Everyone in Italy, at least through my generation, has seen La Ciociara (Two Women), the De Sica film, at least three times. We know it by heart. In this role, Loren reached the summit of her art and of her extraordinary beauty. And I have also read the Alberto Moravia’s novel.
For every new character that I prepare to play, I read, I see films and go to the theater as much as possible, to have my memory full of all these references that connect me with the story, the text, the various interpretations. Then, often during rehearsals, I have the feeling that this preexisting substructure has disappeared and that everything I am doing comes entirely out of the work with the director and my colleagues. But in the end, in some way or other, everything reemerges and flows together.
Do you find Loren’s performance helpful—or a hindrance to you?
Most definitely, it’s a help to me—and a great inspiration.
Is there a special challenge in portraying a violent, depressing drama and a character who is raped by invading soldiers?
This happens to be a historically true story. Moravia speaks of “Italy raped by the war,” and he refers to the atrocities committed by the Moroccan troops allied with the France who disembarked in Italy after 1943, who were given freedom to pillage and to commit countless rapes. Entire villages were defenseless victims of these barbarities, with the cynical permission of the French. It’s a story truly repugnant and tragic, one that has never been discussed enough. I don’t find it at all depressing to depict or to recall these actions which really occurred against innocent people.
While studying Two Women, I realized that it will be a completely atypical opera, very close to the cinematic genre, with long orchestral commentaries and superimposed scenes almost as fade-ins and fade-outs. It’s a real challenge for Francesca [Zambello], our director. Yet, even without knowing yet how the staging will look, I already know that I will love her ideas, both visual and conceptual. I have worked with Francesca, first at the start of both our careers—in Rome, in Cimarosa’s Orazi e Curazi—and then more recently in London, in Carmen. She is a great director. I can’t imagine anyone who commands greater skill and a greater range of talents to guide us on this adventure.
Tutino’s musical and vocal style has been compared to Puccini, Mascagni and other verismo composers, a manner not especially common in your repertoire to date.
The musical style of this opera seems to me a verist, or realist, style in the way it adheres closely to the dramatic text, every note corresponding to a syllable. And that means it’s not all that far from the sung recitative of a Monteverdi opera; there are no actual arias in the classic sense, but ariosi, between song and recitative. Here, moreover, every character has his or her own leitmotive, and is introduced by a musical theme. Most important, Marco writes so well for the voice, and never “forces.”
San Francisco is fortunate to see you in two operas this season. What makes Cassandre, in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a favorite role of yours?
With Cassandre it was love at first sight. I had the good fortune to be invited by John Eliot Gardiner to sing the role in Paris in 2003, and ever since then it’s been my favorite role. Cassandre is special because she sees what other people don’t, she has the courage that they lack, she suffers and is harassed by everyone, and she is alone because no one can understand her.
Her family, the man she loves, all her people are about to be destroyed, and she mourns everything that has been, that could have been, and will be no more. She is touching for her fragility and powerlessness in the face of events that she cannot forestall, and then at the end she is capable of inspiring all the Trojan women to kill themselves, with a cold force almost like a religious martyr or a kamikaze.
Have you changed your approach to the role since you first performed it?
Not substantially, I would say. The differences have been due more to the various visions of the directors with whom I’ve worked.
The first time, in Paris, the director was Yannis Kokkos, and with him Cassandre was a luminous figure, mournful and tormented, but fragile, private, and timid, like an autistic person or an epileptic treated with pity by everyone. In the staging by David McVicar, on the other hand, everything is darker and more dramatic and Cassandre is a disturbing, obsessive character with a demented gaze and unnatural gestures, who shows all the shattered violence of her horrible visions.
You have sung with important conductors such as Riccardo Muti, John Eliot Gardiner, and others. Can you describe some highlights from those collaborations?
My experience with Muti was definitely exalting, but also quite intimidating for me. He has an overpowering and magnetic personality. I would have given my soul to have been equal to his expectations, but—ahimé—I certainly was not, because of my technical limitations and experience and also from a solid inferiority complex that has stayed with me for such a long time! He has the ability to create orchestral atmospheres of such sublimity that I feared I might ruin everything with my performance.
Gardiner is a fascinating musician, a conductor full of inventiveness, curiosity and an enthusiasm that transports all interpreters, inspiring them to transcend their own limits for the sake of the final success of the work itself. He is responsible for my passion for French music, particularly Berlioz, and it was he who first offered me the role of Cassandre. He has a command of this repertoire, including minor and obscure works, that is unparalleled today. We also share a love for Monteverdi and the Italian Baroque. We worked together quite a bit, including in the marvelous Carmen at the Opéra Comique in Paris and by now I consider him in fact a friend.

And your colleagues have included Jonas Kaufmann. How was that experience?
We worked together in Carmen at Covent Garden in 2007, conducted by Pappano and staged by Francesca. In that kind of framework, it was pure joy to go to work every day, and extremely difficult to have to go on to something else when it ended.
Concerning your career, would you say that you have tended to do things in your own personal way? 
Probably my career has been atypical, but I can’t say it was always as a result of my own choices. When I started out, I presented myself as a Rossini soprano in the Colbran repertoire—a gifted soprano (1785–1845) who influenced her husband Gioachino Rossini on a number of his creations, the title roles of Armida; Zelmira; Ermione; Elizabeth, Queen of England—and as a Mozart soprano, singing Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte) and Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni). But I was immediately offered rare and obscure roles in the Baroque and nineteenth-century repertoire. And that peculiarity has not changed—in two years I’ll sing Britten’s Gloriana! I accepted offers that interested me, but on my own it wouldn’t have occurred to me to learn those roles. I’ve been truly fortunate.

You are rare in opera in that you seem unafraid of the camera. If you had not been a singer, would you have wanted a career in film?

Even though film is one of my great passions, I don’t know if I would have wanted to work in that medium. It certainly has its advantages. In two months, movie stars earn what we would earn in two lifetimes. They become world famous and admired, and basically all they have to worry about each day is staying beautiful.

The singer’s life is a lot less fun, and the life of a stage actor is downright grim. That’s why I love and admire them so much, these prose actors, who put on their own makeup in dreary dressing rooms, and rehearse every day, repeat the same play month after month, learn thousands of lines of text by heart. They’ve studied for years to project their voice and make it powerful, incisive, smooth, flexible and to be able to use it even when they’re tired. Every evening, they have to create the magic again, to convince and move an audience. And their power is totally ephemeral, it vanishes when the theater empties out.

The final lines of Cyrano de Bergerac, before his death, seem to me to define the work of an actor:

“The battle’s not for glory or for gain,
No, far nobler yet – it’s fought in vain.”

If I hadn’t been an opera singer, I’m sure I’d have aspired to be a stage actor.

What new roles do you hope to sing in the future? What about the other heroine of Les Troyens, Didon?

Didon is a magnificent part, and all the great singers preferred it to Cassandra, including Régine Crespin, one of my great role models, who found the role of Didon more “feminine.” But I would hate to abandon Cassandra, and it would seem a real betrayal. So I’ve kept fighting for this role. I’m not looking for new roles. I’m delighted, next season, to return to Fauré’s marvelous Pénélope and to Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine.

What are some of the interests and pastimes that make up your non-professional life?

I can’t really speak of “pastimes,” unfortunately, since I never have time to pass, and all the rushing and moving takes a lot out of me. When I can find a moment, I usually read, see a film or a play. Literature, poetry, cinema and theater have always been essential parts of my life, since my father introduced me to those passions. My father was speaking about art right until his last days, and I find that marvelous. I try to pass this interest on, as well as I can, to my fifteen-year-old son. He will start to study drama next year. In another life, I would hope to pursue gardening, biking, pastry making, and flamenco, all of which I was dying to attempt in this life—I just never had the time.

How does it feel to be returning to San Francisco?

It goes without saying that San Francisco is a stupendous city, with a stupendous opera house. This will be my third engagement here. The first harks back more than twenty years, in Rossini’s Ermione. The second was in 1998, a marvelous production of Norma alongside Carol Vaness, conducted by Patrick Summers. I’m especially eager to appear here for the third time in these two extraordinary operas and these magnificent casts.

A Dream Fufilled