SAN FRANCISCO – In John Adams’ new opera Antony and Cleopatra, one goes back and forth between the grip of the lush rush of music and the production’s stunning visual minimalism. The world premiere tells Shakespeare’s towering tale of passion, global power shifts and loss, but it’s neatly delivered in part with Mimi Lien’s taut set that creates windows, doors, steps and funeral pyres out of dark wood, helping to make order and shape(s) out of a potentially unwieldy story.
Adams’ newest endeavor ended its seven-performance world premiere run at San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial House on Oct. 5 to celebrate the opening of the company’s 100th season. It was an opera with—well, with everything, and it lived up to its celebratory hype. If you missed it on the West Coast, Antony and Cleopatra will go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and to Barcelona, Spain.
What extraordinary talent converged to make this three-hour tragedy, sung in English, an operatic feast. The composer also wrote the libretto, with editing help from dramaturg Lucia Scheckner and Elkhanah Pulitzer, a stage director with many edgy-production credits and the great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Pulitzer, namesake of the Pulitzer Prize. The three condensed Shakespeare’s play from 42 to nine scenes and reduced characters from 40 to 12.
Add to that virtuoso mix bass-baritone Gerald Finley’s portrayal as a sympathetic Antony, who is losing his muscle tone—his virility and drive—and botches numerous things, including his suicide. (Historically, his age was mid-40s and Cleopatra’s mid-20s, but whatever; aging was different then.) Stir in Pulitzer’s tight stage direction, a precisely choreographed and rehearsed 41-person chorus, plus supernumeraries and dancers, and a 72-piece orchestra conducted fluidly by Korean-born Eun Sun Kim. Two members played the celeste and cimbalom, uncommon opera-orchestra instruments, and harps accompanied Cleopatra’s very long death scene.
Soprano Julia Bullock was booked to sing Cleopatra’s role but bowed out due to pregnancy. She was replaced by soprano Amina Edris (born in Egypt), who showed star power, rich singing and nimble movement as a complex, clever and vulnerable Cleopatra, a queen who wants her way.
And always, there’s Shakespeare’s poetic eloquence to which the music must do justice, which it does. Many lines are repeated so if you’re following the supra-titles, you have a second chance to grasp the complicated syntax.
Reviews, all over the map
Some critics have been ecstatic, including the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, who credited Adams for making music that fit the grandeur of Shakespeare’s poetry. Others, such as Zachary Woolfe at the New York Times, called the opera conventional and lacking in Adams’ brilliant originality.
Adams, 75, lives in Berkeley, California–across the bay from SFO–and has enjoyed a 35-year relationship with the opera company. SFO premiered his Girls of the Golden West in 2017 and Dr. Atomic in 2005; performed his Nixon in China (not a premiere) in 2012; and gave the West Coast premeire of The Death of Klinghoffer in 1992. In 2017, SFO, along with the Metropolitan Opera and Liceu Opera Barcelona, commissioned him to create a piece for its 100th anniversary, and of course, he said yes.
Adams had been re-reading all of Shakespeare’s dramas to decide which play would make the best opera and settled on Antony and Cleopatra for its timeless view of passion complicated by world politics and war, for its true-love (tinged with longing and hatred) relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, and for its protagonists’ opposing trajectories. Aging general Antony sung by Finley wants to revel and relax in Cleopatra’s irresistibility, while ambitious Caesar Octavian (Julius Caesar’s adopted nephew sung by tenor Paul Appleby) prefers to secure an empire. Ongoing war and dueling families intermarrying and killing off one another sounds its relentless drum as the understory. As Adams said in the program notes, “the study of power between individuals and nations feels uniquely and psychologically modern.”
You can’t beat the tale, the plot, or the head-strong characters, who identify with gods. Cleopatra was a powerful and brilliant woman who knew nine languages and was the first Egyptian leader to speak Egyptian. She was canny, and calculated that Antony, a celebrated soldier, would donate the best DNA for her offspring. And he did; they had twins. She also had a son by Julius Caesar, so she slept around with the powerful. And she knew about war and strategy–though in this opera, she contributes to Antony’s disastrous failure at an important sea battle that leads to his downfall. He is a land soldier and general, after all.
Stage director Pulitzer dressed up the opera in a mid-century Hollywood glamor and fascist Rome. The film clips, engineered by projection designer Bill Morrison, included Mussolini’s daughter Edda’s wedding in 1930 to fascist propagandist Galeazzo Ciano, and lots of early mid-century fascist salutes and marching. Those overtones ring strong today, though this was among the least political of Adams’ operas.
Constance Hoffman’s costumes are scintillating with Cleopatra dressed elegantly and seductively in her many changes. Her final costume, a glittering midnight-blue gown that matched the starry heavens, is to die for—and for her to die in. She kills herself by snake bite, and I swear that onstage snake prop looked alive. (Contemporary historians contend that she likely killed herself by poison, a substance with which she was quite familiar).
If I have any objections, they are aimed at the shortage of ensemble singing. Of course there was the thrum of the chorus’ singing, and Antony and Cleopatra share a beautiful searing duet, “Oh Love,” in Act 1 of the two-act opera. But most of the singing consists of arias and clipped conversations between and among characters, so the action keeps steadily moving, and that’s what Adams wanted. It is a sprawling three-continents tale to tell. The singers, including the secondary characters, are all very good, but I would have appreciated more duets, quartets, nonets. The singers are body-miked, which Adams insisted upon for his previous operas, and opera purists might object to that.
A no-nonsense, fast-action cinematic tone permeates the piece. Generally, I prefer chamber operas—more intimate productions with fewer characters—though Adams did pare the 40 Shakespeare characters down to 12, focusing on the three main characters. This was a very big opera, and it lived up to its Shakespearean inspiration in almost all aspects. I can’t imagine how much it cost to produce this piece, and it’s not at all surprising that five years passed between concept to production.
If you’re saving up to see one opera this year, Antony and Cleopatra is a sure bet. It will add to the canon and likely outshine many operas that have attempted to carefully or boldly use Shakespeare’s dramas, which few have done well. This opera will resist the changes of time and trends.