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Ah, dementia

St Johns, Smith Square
06/20/2001 -  
Dario Castello: Sonata terza from Sonate concertante in stil moderno
Claudio Monteverdi: Lamento d'Arianna: Lasciatemi morire
Giovanni Battista Fontana: Sonata Sexta for violin and continuo
Pietro Antonio Giramo: La Pazza
Biagio Marini: Sonata sopra la Monica, op.8
Claudio Monteverdi: Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
St James's Baroque Players
Ivor Bolton (conductor)

Anna Caterina Antonacci made her name in the UK in shattering performances of Rossini's Ermione at Glyndebourne in 1995. She was stunning to watch, though perhaps less at home in the music, in Rodelinda at Glyndebourne in 1998. Antonacci combines physical commitment and dramatic understanding with a distinctive voice in a way that is rarely found these days. She does not, though, give the impression that she is playing the role of an old-fashioned diva, but seems to inhabit every role anew. This programme of early seventeenth-century Italian madness went back to the operatic beginnings of the soprano's big scene, with a proto-Liebestod thrown in, and gave her plenty of opportunity to show what she could do. The St James's Baroque Players provided generally spotless accompaniment, and added some virtuoso instrumental interludes from the same period.

The Lamento d'Arianna is the mother of all arias (and scenas), but it is also a comparatively modern example of the lament genre. Trying to reproduce ancient drama, Monteverdi, like his contemporaries, actually made the rhetorical classical elegy into material for dramatic performance again. The text already has the shape of obsession, with its repetitive "O Teseo" , and of derangement, with its metrical variations. The music adds a sense of physical urgency, tension and release, or breakdown. Antonacci used angular-and-flat gestures with considerable grace, but her singing was free of gestures, concentrated completely on communicating the moment-by-moment experience of being Arianna. It might have been coincidence, but she had a chiffon scarf round her shoulders that unwound in a way similar to Ariadne's dress in Catullus 64, one of the sources of the text.

Giramo's La pazza (written during the 1620s) is much less familiar. It is a hilarious and demanding parody of operatic mad-scenes, and perhaps of spoken theatrical ones as well, with a hint of Ophelia. The mad woman's words are facile, parts of conventional songs with fa-la-las, and the music veers wildly but seamlessly between the sort of settings you'd expect, often rather beautiful, and extreme dislocation, with sudden silences, gasping and spasms, an earlier incarnation of Tourette's diva. Antonacci was funny rather than disturbing, but she didn't overplay the comic, concentrating instead on vocal virtuosity.

Monteverdi's Combattimento is also based on a classical topos, the coup de foudre of Achilles and the Amazon Penthisilea, who he has just mortally wounded. The text is from Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata. To justify the intense eroticism, Tasso has the dying Clorinda convert to Christianity so that she is redeemed. She closes the work with a heartbreaking farewell from beyond death. Monteverdi set Tasso's narrative text as it was, with parts for a narrator, an engaged but non-participant observer, as well as for Tancredi and Clorinda. Antonacci performed all three roles, which inevitably threw the focus on the narrator, although she distinguished the characters enough for it to be clear who was speaking. But the Combattimento is in a way a kind of anti-drama: the action consists of the narrator's description of and response to events to which the audience has no other access. Antonacci's intense, complex performance worked superbly for this.

H.E. Elsom



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