Perhaps the most risky gamble an English-speaking composer can take is to turn Shakespeare into an opera. Although the repertoire includes various Shakespearean adaptations, only one version by a native speaker has found a secure place on the international stage: Benjamin Britten’s 1960’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The dangers of Bardic opera are clear. The pieces create their own indelible music in the reader’s mind, and recitations by famous actors are memorable. A safer approach is to take Shakespeare’s drama and psychology and replace it with a more modern text. Verdi and Arrigo Boito did the same in “Otello” and “Falstaff”; as well as Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes in “The Tempest”, which made its debut in 2004 and has shown staying power. Britten’s unique accomplishment was to score the “Dream” line by line, while asserting his own lithe, sinister personality.
John Adams, the composer of “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and “Doctor Atomic,” has stepped into the ring with a finely crafted, expressive rendition of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which premiered September 10. , at the San Francisco Opera. The libretto, which Adams devised in consultation with director Elkhanah Pulitzer and playwright Lucia Scheckner, is mostly pure Shakespeare, with a few interludes from Plutarch and Virgil. A hyperkinetic opening, with violas ringing out a galloping figure and brass scuttling in dove-like haste, makes it clear that, like Britten before him, Adams will showcase a distinctive personal voice. You feel that the composer is not intimidated by the task. This is in contrast to Brett Dean’s overly confident rendition of “Hamlet” seen at the Met last season.
Adams has been writing operas since the 1980s, and he long ago developed an exceptional talent for making music from the English language. Instead of fixed singsong patterns, he has perfected a malleable vocal line that follows the erratic rhythms of thought and speech. Consider his handling of the phrase “The Eastern Hemisphere beckoned us” in “Nixon”: A rapid triplet pattern on “Hemisphere” levitates the word over the beat and delays the next accent. The richer the language, the stronger Adams’ response. When J. Robert Oppenheimer sings John Donne’s “Batter my heart” at the end of the first act of “Doctor Atomic”, the anguished eloquence of the music alters the perception of the poem.
At the same time, Adams has a melodic style that is independent of his literary sources. The defining moment in Harmonielehre, his groundbreaking 1985 piece, is the emergence of an expansive, ascending and descending theme in the strings and horns in the middle of the first movement, more or less in the key of E flat minor. It is intensely theatrical, gestural music, a monologue without words. In ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ similarly roving Adams lines appear in the orchestra, now aimed at settings of a venerable text. The clash with Shakespeare seems to have been inevitable.
Antony is the first stage work Adams created without Peter Sellars, who directed Nixon, Klinghoffer, Atomic, and other politically charged projects. Those who want to see Adams address pressing issues of the day might be disappointed, but he’s earned the right to withdraw from contemporary controversy. “Antony” still carries political resonances – notably in its portrait of Octavius Caesar, the future Emperor Augustus, who defeats the rebellious lovers and reveals himself as a soulless dictator-in-training.
In his Life of Antony, Plutarch wanted to demonstrate how a great soldier had fallen victim to female temptations. Shakespeare complicated this scheme by giving Cleopatra an aura of literary majesty. Adams further undermines Roman morality by giving Cleopatra both the first and last word. Instead of Philo’s opening lines about “The threefold pillar of the world transformed / into a fool” – words Caesar will utter later in the opera with gushing poison – Cleopatra and her servants act out a scene adapted from The Taming of the Shrew,” dressed the drunken Antony in feminine robes. The notion of Antony being “unmanned” therefore takes on a playful vibe, as if to say, “So what?”
Still, Antony and Cleopatra’s love affair isn’t an oasis of illicit sensuality like the various incarnations of “Romeo and Juliet” or their insane Wagnerian cousin “Tristan and Isolde.” The rat-a-tat scherzando energy of the opening bars is sustained throughout Act I, which takes us to Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium. There is something desperate and unsettling about the escapades of these middle-aged lovers, both losing ground to a new imperial rule. The dialogue unfolds with Adams’ practiced naturalism, but the orchestra seethes beneath it, delivering short, explosive outbursts that are variously reminiscent of Cleopatra’s tantrums, Antony’s fits of self-pity, and the nervous reactions of her subordinates. All of this instrumental agitation conveys the feeling of characters caught in a fast-moving stream heading towards certain catastrophe.
The music for Caesar is disciplined and mechanical. Where the first scene of Antony and Cleopatra is filled with quicksilver meter changes, Caesar enters with an orchestral juggernaut in 2/4, reminiscent of Adams’ minimalist roots. The voice is written for a tenor and is often uncomfortably high in pitch, reminiscent of Mao Tse-tung’s bleating monologues in Nixon. At the height of Caesar’s development, he proclaims himself emperor and addresses a singing people: “Rome, ‘ist your alone, with a awful sway, To rule humankind, and make the world obedient.” These words come from John Drydens Translation of the Aeneid, but fit Shakespeare well. The orchestra embodies a malevolent grandeur reminiscent of “Nixon” – this time the totalitarian pageantry of Jiang Qing.
Cleopatra’s death, on the other hand, unfolds in an atmosphere of unwavering serenity that implicitly defies Caesar’s cold new order. The scene is underpinned by sad, stately descending figures on the harps, a nod to Stravinsky’s neoclassical ballet Orpheus. A shimmering soundscape of gongs, celesta and the dulcimer-like cimbalom extends the ecstatic mood. It’s an old and fairly familiar image – an exotic woman walking out at the end of an opera. But Cleopatra goes on her own terms and chooses not to have any part in “this wild world.” Her vocal line tends toward the low end of the soprano range, her contours are well formed and leisurely. Her cool composure is perhaps prophetic of a different kind of power.
Pulitzer’s elegant, stylized staging – with sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Constance Hoffman and lighting by David Finn – transports the action to the 1930s, mixing the seedy glitz of pre-code Hollywood with the monumental bombast of fascist Italy. The connection makes sense when one considers how cinematic values influenced fascist iconography: silent films helped popularize the so-called “Roman salute,” which does not appear to have existed in antiquity. Filmmaker Bill Morrison, a master manipulator of found footage, provides appropriate video projections, including images of Mussolini’s daughter’s wedding.
The focus of the concept is the Machiavellian Caesar, who the tenor Paul Appleby portrayed with charismatic meanness on the opening night. Appleby wore a blue suit, his hair slicked back, gestured flowery as he swiveled in his seat, and painted a vivid picture of hollow authority. Is he a neatly dressed dictator? Or a cheeky studio boss? The psychological differences between the two are small. Appleby maintained a beautiful tone despite the demanding demands of the role, and his rendition of Caesar’s Ode to Roman Power was a tour de force, drawing restless applause from the audience. This tyrant was both ridiculous and terrifying: we have met his like before and we will meet him again.
Cleopatra looks like a star who has emerged from the cultural scene and is trying to dominate it. The role was written for Julia Bullock, who retired due to pregnancy. We won’t see a definitive review of “Antony” until this lavishly gifted singer puts her stamp on the role. Amina Edris, who stepped in at short notice, sang with power and finesse, even if her deep tones were a bit unclear. Antony was played by the incomparable Gerald Finley, who birthed Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic. On opening night, Finley seemed unsure of the character, his body language awkward and his tone reserved. Watching a stream of a subsequent performance, I heard more of the thoughtful richness that is Finley’s trademark. In the smaller roles, Alfred Walker excelled in his wryly vacillating Enobarbus and Philip Skinner in his gruff, potent Lepidus. Eun Sun Kim, the vivacious young music director of the San Francisco Opera, led with clear commands and a keen sense of Adams’ style.
The premiere of Antony was the first production of San Francisco Opera’s centennial season. Those who know her theatrical history may have wondered whether addressing the subject in a celebratory context would risk fiasco: when Samuel Barber’s Italian adaptation of Antony inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966, it turned out to be a voluptuous dud . Adam’s score is a more musically distinctive creation, but the real difference has to do with context. By the late 20th century, Met premieres had become rare and fraught with anticipation. Adams, a longtime Northern California native, has seen five of his works at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, to the point that his attendance there has become routine. It should be remembered that the company’s first full season opened with a piece by a living composer, newer then than Nixon in China and now La Bohème. ♦