“La Antonacci” and Accademia degli Astrusi

Teatro Morlacchi, Perugia, Italy; April 17, 2013—A vacation trip to Italy’s Umbrian hills took a Renaissance/Baroque turn at Perugia’s Teatro Morlacchi, a jewel of a venue from 1781 that seats about 1,000. The Bolognese chamber string ensemble, the Accademia degli Astrusi (15 strong) under Federico Ferri, along with soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci offered a program of music from Monteverdi to Padre Martini (d. 1784) the central conceit of which was, oddly enough, tears. The opening five-minute, slow, two-movement concerto by Vivaldi called “Al Santo Sepolcro” set the solemn mood; Geminiani’s fabulous concerto grosso, “La Folia”, a reworking of Corelli’s violin sonata of the same name, followed the minor-key emphasis. A fascinating work in which first violin and first cellist attempt to out-perform one another, the piece is lively but hardly cheerful; riveting in any case and magnificently played by all.

Antonacci, a soprano (sometime mezzo), is a cult figure all over Europe, as loved for her Carmen as for her early music—some call her “the new Callas.” I’ve never gone that far, but she is a total artist, the voice a fine if limited instrument (short on top), filled with colors, and a dramatic sense to be reckoned with. She opened with Ottavia’s farewell to Rome from Monteverdi’s L’incornazione di Poppea, and sang it with royal restraint and sorrowful dark tone. The following “Lagrime mie” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), a lament written for a male singer, which opens with the words “Tears of mine, why do you hold back?/Why don’t you express the piercing pain/that stops my breath and oppresses my heart?”, was performed with voice and body, with hands as crucial as tone. A highly chromatic concerto by Vivaldi (“Madrilesco,” RV 129) added to the glorious grief and led into Orfeo’s merry strophic song from Act 1 of the Monteverdi opera—a trick of sorts, given that we know how the tale ends. Dido’s Lament (Purcell) may have lacked the vocal beauty that Janet Baker, Jessye Norman, and others have given it, but it was sung with an almost terrifying stillness, with the strings lightly embellishing their parts with melancholy downward slides.

An upbeat, major-key concerto by Padre Martini (Mozart’s teacher during his Italian sojourn) gave the audience a sense of relief before the final number: Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a masterpiece of storytelling about a pair of lovers, who, as armored, unrecognizable warriors, meet on the battlefield and wreak destruction on one-another. In this narrative with interjections by the two combatants, Antonacci took all three parts. Monteverdi’s music expresses aggression, rage, battle, the clash of swords, the changes in mood; in Antonacci’s delivery, we had what seemed to be an entire operatic experience, altering her tone, spitting out the text when needed, caressing when called for.

Throughout, Ferri and his group played superbly, with energy, sharp attacks, and tone that expressed the emotions inherent in each piece. They are due to come to the United States in a year or two. They’re worth waiting for.