La Dame de Monte Carlo
La Voix humaine
Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
Donald Sulzen (piano)
Quite an opening to my 2015-16 Wigmore Hall season! For this lunchtime concert, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Donald Sulzen performed the piano version of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine, preceded by his final, not dissimilar vocal work, La Dame de Monte Carlo. Both have texts by Cocteau; both are far less conventionally ‘melodic’ than one would expect from this most melodic of composers; both are monologues intended for Denise Duval, portraying women on the verge, at least, of breakdown.
La Dame de Monte Carlo is anything but an easy way in for a soprano. Antonacci was herself, or rather the woman whose persona she assumed, from the very outset, always very well supported – and more than that – by Sulzen. ‘C’est joli de dire: “je joue”. Cela vous met le feu aux joues et cela vous allume l’œil.’ It was a gamble indeed, and it paid off. Moreover, it did have our eyes light up, as she so seductively span out the end of the phrase. Likewise we saw her ‘feathers and veils’ (‘mes plumes et mes voiles’), or rather thought we did, as she raised her arm. There was no doubting the singing actress here. Pauses told as much as words, for instance after ‘Et ils m’accusent d’être sale, de porter malheur dans leurs salles, dans leurs sales salles en stuc.’ There were a sadness and a defiance here that spoke, in Cocteau’s words, of the ‘lamentable story of an old, abandoned, miserable floozy’, and yet went beyond what one fancied words alone might have accomplished. The final ‘Monte Carlo’, upon the woman’s resolution to throw herself into the sea there, was operatic in the very best sense, as was the dryness of the piano response. The French ‘sec’ inevitably sprang to mind.
The main course inevitably encompassed a wider variety of emotions. Initially seated next to a table, on which an orange telephone as stylish as her performance was placed, Antonacci was in character from the moment she sat down. The fascinating tonalities and almost Schoenbergian motivic development of the piano part set the scene, but there was no doubt whose show it was. ‘Tu me connais, je suis incapable de prendre sur moi’ had a splendid sense of irony, whether with respect to the character or the metatheatricality, all the more so since it was delivered with passion rather than irony. Ghosts from Poulenc’s past and present seemed to haunt the performance, although there was little of the carefree. Harmonies from Dialogues des Carmélites assumed new resonance, as did the common notion of fear: ‘Peur? Non, je n’aurai pas peur … c’est pire.’ It almost certainly was worse, since here there was no sign of Divine Grace. Again, the ‘Allô’ when Antonacci feared she had been cut off spoke of real fear, not something assumed. This was great acting as much as anything else. Even the downpour outside and consequent darkening of the light seemed perfectly timed for the ‘production’. And the speech-like writing proved beyond doubt, just as it would have done had she been singing Monteverdi, that recitative can be at least as expressive as aria. Audience reaction was as warm as one would have expected.