'Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers' is the weighty title of the OAE's latest concert series. Inspired by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the orchestra celebrate music written about and for women with guests to include Sarah Connolly, Emma Bell and William Christie.
The French-influenced programme of the first in the series featured a rare concert appearance from the sphinx-like Anna Caterina Antonacci, a bundle of contradictions wrapped in an enigma. A beautiful woman who shuns the limelight, a soprano who can sing mezzo roles better than the mezzos, a versatile performer who could wrap her vocal cords around almost anything yet chooses only the few roles which truly appeal to her sensibilities, she is perhaps the last true diva.
The programme was, apparently, originally planned around Bizet and Carmen, but in the end we got only the Gypsy Song - and that was an encore. First Antonacci gave us a brief snatch of Cherubini, with Dei tuoi figli la madre from Médée, then the equally brief O malheureuse Iphigénie from Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, before a slightly more substantial chunk of Berlioz - Dido's Ah! Ah! Je vais mourir...Adieu, fière cité from Les Troyens. Mourning, accusing, dying - these are intense emotions to grapple with in just a couple of minutes. Antonacci pierces straight to the heart with her extraordinarily direct delivery, surrendering immediately and entirely to each character. Even her jolly Carmen encore burned with an intensity that brought the house down. And then she was gone. Perhaps like 120 proof whisky, any more would have been too much.
The evening was topped and tailed with a pair of symphonies. Haydn's Symphony No.85 (La reine) presumably squeezed on to the programme presumably because of the name, as it had little in common with what followed. Roger Norrington milked its scant humour with an André Rieu-style turn'n'gurn to the audience at the critical moments.
If the Haydn dragged on a little for an opener, then Bizet's delightful Symphony in C ended the night on a high point. It's hard to listen to this without visualising Balanchine's choreography at the same time, and the clean, supple playing of the OAE had all the lightness and grace of a corps de ballet.