Review: Orchestra shines in new opera ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

35 years ago, the first opera by John Adams, which changed the way opera was done in America and changed its meaning, had its first public workshop performance in a small theater, the Herbst, adjacent to the San Francisco Opera. It was a concert reading of “Nixon in China” with the singers and piano accompaniment.

In the audience was the then director of the San Francisco Opera, Terence McEwen, who had overslept the first two scenes and pointedly walked out before the end of the first act. He is said to have announced that his company would only perform “Nixon” over his corpse. It finally did – during his tenure. And even more so after McEwen retired from the company a year later.

On Saturday night, the San Francisco Opera, America’s second oldest opera house after the Metropolitan in New York, began its second century with the world premiere of Adams’ fifth opera, Antony and Cleopatra, cementing the most significant relationship between any opera house and composer in the last century. The San Francisco Opera has now commissioned or co-commissioned four of Adams’ five major operas and premiered the last three.

With Nixon, The Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic and Girls of the Golden West, Adams and his close and crucial collaborator, director Peter Sellars, revealed the mythical dimension of recent history in the first three and from the Gold Rush in “Girls”. “Nixon” (which finally reached San Francisco in 2012, 14 years after McEwen’s death) examined how the perceived differences between East and West triggered the Cold War. Meanwhile, “Klinghoffer” continues to prove shocking in his explanation of the roots of terrorism. Both operas boast librettos by Alice Goodman that promise to become enduring works of literature.

“Doctor Atomic” reveals the human side of making the atomic bomb; “Girls” uncovers the surprising underlying roots of the exploitative capitalism that ultimately led to the carefree excesses of Silicon Valley. These libretti are stunning assemblages of Sellars’ documentary and literary sources, bringing Adams’ music to life. In his operas, which are always full of spectacle, history and myth become personal.

However, Antony and Cleopatra is different. For the first time, Adams has tried musical theater without Sellars, choosing instead to work with young director Elkhanah Pulitzer (who directed a critically acclaimed “Nixon” which Adams conducted with the LA Phil in 2017) and dramaturg Lucia Scheckner.

For whatever reason, it’s difficult to resist the imagery of Adams now turning to the very game and location that launched Sellars into the public eye. As a student in 1978, Sellars staged Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in the swimming pool at Harvard’s Adams House. The Harvard Crimson described it as “scene after scene of slapstick splatter and general mayhem”. Ernest Fleischmann, former leader of the LA Phil, saw it and decided on the spot that Sellars would one day play a part in the orchestra. In 1992, Sellars was hired as the first orchestral dramaturge ever.

Lots of people on a dark stage in an opera

Gerald Finley as Antony with the San Francisco Opera Chorus in John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra.

(Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)

There is no chaos in Adams’ Antony. The composer himself, in consultation with Pulitzer and Scheckner, designed a straightforward libretto from Shakespeare’s text. It is necessary to reduce this huge saga and limit the number of characters. The focus is on Antony and Cleopatra as mature lovers. A bit like Adams’ Nixon and Mao, they are insecure, aging rulers who put up a good facade while trying to keep their empires viable in a changing world that has no more use for them—but never, like us once reminded, forget their tragedy.

The opera unfolds in two long acts (80 and 85 minutes respectively). Shakespeare leaves little room for arias, although Adams borrows from Dryden’s translations of Virgil’s “Aeneid” to give one to Caesar, who represents the force of modernity in his empire-building. In his program note, Adams compared this to how the Masters of the Universe worked in Silicon Valley.

The result, however, on first hearing can sound like an endless flow of parlando chants, more ongoing narrative than operatic reflection, music limited to underscoring Shakespeare’s unassailable phrases. Pulitzer’s carefully flowing production and Mimi Lien’s tasteful, architectural sets offer no innovation. Constance Hoffman’s costumes and video projections evoke the glitz, but not the sexiness, of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra.

However, the point of Claudette Colbert as the Egyptian queen’s Hollywood ideal is lost in narrative ordinariness. Even the opening duet between the lovers fails with surprisingly little passion.

The singers are very good but the characters don’t come to life. A lot of this can have to do with direction. Gerald Finley demonstrated a complex, fascinating J. Robert Oppenheimer in “Doctor Atomic”. His love scene with Julia Bullock in Sellars’ production at the Santa Fe Opera was mind-blowing. In the love duet that opens the new opera, for which Adams borrowed a few lively lines from The Taming of the Shrew, Finley’s Mark Antony is without heat. But he stews great, ages indecently, the former hero is tragically unable to let go of his ego.

Bullock was Adams’ muse for this Cleopatra, but shortly before the birth she had to say goodbye to the performances in San Francisco. She will join the production as she travels to Barcelona and the Met over the next few years.

Fortunately, the soprano Amina Edris, who is Egyptian by the way, makes her Cleopatra sparkle effectively. At her most extravagant, the Queen delivers a glorious barrage of vocals celebrating the over-the-top qualities of Nixon’s Madame Mao. Edris shines in it. But Adams’ portrayal of Cleopatra is far richer, and Edris, who sings the rhythmically complex Shakespearean settings with more emphasis on accuracy than dramatic intonation, will need time to fully absorb a long, difficult section. Tenor Paul Appleby, another Adams veteran (“Girls”), is a Caesar disturbingly self-confident and displays a calculating liveliness that becomes the face of fascism.

Four faces projected large onto a stage with many opera singers below

Paul Appleby as Caesar with the San Francisco Opera Chorus in John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra.

(Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)

As with all Adams musical theatres, the singers are amplified and amplification has been constantly improved with new equipment. With his usual sound designer, Mark Grey, the voices sound genuine and blend beautifully with the orchestra.

But the splendor of opera lies in the orchestra. Constantly agitated, constantly changing, always exploring nuances, the orchestra reveals much about the characters in the opera – their inner beings and to a large extent their outer aspects. For example, it is the tuba that lets us feel the power of Caesar. Instrument after instrument gets its theatrical moment.

Adams has his amusing moments. A composer who often contextualizes music from the past in unexpected ways, he riffs on the famous watery opening of Das Rheingold, fusing Cleopatra’s Nile with Wagner’s Rhine. But the tone of “Antony” remains soberly serious throughout, missing the startling moments of humor and whimsy that often found a way into his collaborations with Sellars. Chorus use is usually wonderful, but limited.

This essentially leaves the drama to the San Francisco Opera’s music director, Eun Sun Kim, who conducts with impressively unrelenting enthusiasm and becomes a central figure. If you can’t get the complicated rhythm right, Adams’ music falls apart. She gets it right but, much like Edris, without a sense of spontaneity.

Is Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra a Disappointment? As staged, the theatricality is within walking distance. The correspondence with Shakespeare leaves little room for surprising revelations. This is an “Antony” that is not a Sellars swim against the current, not a dip in the Nile.

But what it demonstrates importantly is the late, mature Adams. There are nearly three hours of orchestral music to immerse yourself in. For all its ordinariness in the opera house, the orchestra is in abundance and promises musical subtleties to be discovered and savored. After looking at the score, its musical subtleties are waiting to be discovered and savored. Each of Adams’ operas has also been revised. Second performances of “Doctor Atomic” and “Girls” really came to life when they reached the Dutch National Opera a year after their San Francisco premiere.

It’s also important to remember that each of Adams’s operas initially had mixed – and in some cases hostile – first receptions. McEwen was hardly in the critical minority at that “Nixon” workshop, even in this newspaper.

Further hearings are required. And to honor the San Francisco Opera, more are on the way, and not just at the Opera House, where it runs until October 5th. The Sunday Matinee on September 18th will be streamed live on the company’s website and made available for 48 hours. After further hearings, we can talk.

‘Antony and Cleopatra’

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 2pm Sunday (also streamed live and archived for two days) and Oct 2 7:30pm Oct 23, 27 & 5

Tickets: $25 – $450, $27.50 to stream

The information:

Duration: 3 hours, 17 minutes Review: Orchestra shines in new opera ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

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