Classic in the making – John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra opens at San Francisco Opera

Soprano Amina Edris and Bass-Baritone Gerald Finley in the title roles of John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra. © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Although he is sure to have several aces up in his sleeve for whatever projects lie ahead, John Adams seems to have come up with an opus summum of sorts in conceiving his new opera Antony and Cleopatra (2018-22). That is to say, judging by the composer’s output thus far, several musical paths leading to his latest work for the operatic stage can be found, with hindsight, at least.

Given in its world premiere performance by the San Francisco Opera on Saturday, Adams’s immersive musical setting of William Shakespeare’s 1606 play of the same name comes off as a classic in the making. The five-hundred-plus-page score is probably the most complex the composer has hitherto penned. That being said, the music bears striking acuity and directness, mirrored with insight by Elkhanah Pulitzer’s formidable staging.

The multi-layered storyline is beautifully served by an exquisite cast, featuring bass-baritone Gerald Finley and soprano Amina Edris in the title roles, joined by tenor Paul Appleby as Caesar, alongside notable line-up of soloists in the supporting roles. As their equal partners, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus propel the drama with admirable intensity and detailed focus under Music Director Eun Sun Kim.

The conversion of Shakespeare’s five-act play into an opera in two acts and nine scenes is carried out by the composer himself, with libretto consultation by Pulitzer and Lucia Scheckner. In addition to Shakespeare, supplementary passages from Plutarch, Virgil and other classical texts are woven into the libretto, giving rise to an ever-powerful love story, one embedded in turbulent political narrative.

In the context of Adams’s previous staged works, Antony and Cleopatra appears as the fusion of the topical intensity of The Death of Klinghoffer (1989-90) and Doctor Atomic (2004-05), the archaic acuity of The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2010-12) and the immediacy of A Flowering Tree (2005-06). In addition, one is bound to take heed of the connections between the new opera and the second movement of Scheherazade.2 (2014); a turbulent love scene for violin and orchestra, titled A Long Desire.

At its core, Antony and Cleopatra is a story about a profoundly intense but utterly dysfunctional relationship between two extraordinary people, whose personal lives eventually fall pray to their political ones, and vice versa. Interwoven is the narrative of the birth of an empire, driven by the young Caesar’s zealous vision of universal peace, which is doomed to boil down into its totalitarian reality. Unable to break the bond between Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar steers Rome into collision course with Egypt, resulting in triple downfall.

While the love story between the Roman general and the Egyptian queen may bear superficial ties to the fates of Tristan and Isolde, Adams’s operatic concept is not essentially Wagnerian, even though the attentive listener will catch him quoting Das Rheingold (1853-54). Instead, the composer himself points out connections to Debussy’s ideas of sung drama (or drame lyrique), as masterfully manifested in Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902). However, whereas Debussy chose to set Maeterlinck’s play to music fundamentally as-is, Adams does indulge himself to occasional repeats and melismatic ornamentation in his settings of some of the libretto’s key phrases, to a dazzling effect.

Taken as a whole, the vocal style of Antony and Cleopatra is rooted in inherent rhythms and melodic contours of the text, yielding to refined sung lines with speech-like fluency. To further enhance the naturalness of expression, the singers are gently amplified, enabling them to resort to lighter vocal styles of added intimacy and agility.

As for the orchestral writing, Adams’s instrumental lines are equals to those delivered by the singers. There are constant perspective shifts between the two expressive layers; sometimes the orchestra takes lead, as in the gorgeous, dream-like vision of Cleopatra’s barge closing the second scene of the first act. Although the text is rendered by Enobarbus, marvellously sung by bass-baritone Alfred Walker, the narrative proper is given to the orchestra; tintinnabulations laid down by harps and pitched percussion, pulses generated in the strings and ravishing embellishments sounded by woodwinds.

The scene also marks the first entry of the cimbalom, the key provider of colour and ambiance henceforth, trusted into the good hands of Chester Englander, to whom Adams has written his two previous key parts for the instrument, those of Other Mary and Scheherazade.2. In Antony and Cleopatra, the cimbalom is organically integrated into the percussion section, including notable duets with timpani and celesta.

Composer John Adams and San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim in rehearsal. © Kristen Loken

Adams’s mastery over the orchestra is evident throughout. There are large forces at play, involving triple winds and brass, with four horns and a solo tuba, two harps, keyboards, timpani, a noteworthy array of pitched and unpitched percussion, alongside full string section. As in Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018), basset horn makes its appearance in the score as well. The machinery is used with great imagination and finesse, from delicate string-led underscorings to full-blown orchestral tapestries, not forgetting those essential musical moments assigned to tuba and tuned gongs, respectively.

Although Cleopatra’s role was initially written for soprano Julia Bullock, who is to make her debut in it next fall in Barcelona, the part comes off as tailor-made to Amina Edris, whose portrayal of the Egyptian queen is simply enthralling in its scope, scale, nuance and sheer vocal beauty. On psychological level, if such a thing can be separated from its aural shape and hue, Edris provides an emotional continuum of commanding intensity, while maintaining extraordinary articulation and clarity.

Gerald Finley’s Antony is flesh and blood in equal measure; a hero in decline, perhaps, but one of fascinating self-awareness. As always, the Canadian bass-baritone delivers a multi-dimensional study of his character, abundant with contradictions, all channeled into vocal artistry of captivating perceptiveness.

Together Edris and Finley convey wide spectrum of the human soul, in scenic arch encompassing tenderness and decadence, affection and vengeance as well as embitterment and piercing sorrow. In their interactions, sensuality becomes mixed with powerplay, eventually transforming into transcendental resignation in their successive death-scenes of extraordinary poignancy. In Pulitzer’s staging, the interactions of Antony and Cleopatra are set in brilliant Art Deco images, evoking the spirit of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Some of the most drastic ambiguities can be found in Paul Appleby’s outstanding presentation of Augustus Ceasar, whose dramatis persona is a bewildering mixture of messianic self-assessment and blatant realpolitik. Juxtaposed with the cinematic fantasy of the title couple, Caesar’s stage presence is merged with visuals from Mussolini’s Italy; authentic film materials reworked into projections by Bill Morrison and fascist uniforms re-invented by Constance Hoffman’s costume design.

However, the characterization of Caesar goes beyond the black-and-white world of Il Duce, for his eerily humourless, boy-like appearance bears good doses of Zuckerbergian appeal. In the culminating choral scene, the Emperor’s militaristic proclamations of world peace are not far removed from those quasi-religious prophecies uttered in empowering inaugurations of various social media platforms some fifteen years ago.

Speaking of Adams’s choral writing, the chorus makes its first entry only at the very end of act one, lamenting Antony’s game-changing defeat in naval battle against Caesar’s fleet. Culminating with the blindfolded ecstasy of the massed ranks of vox populi in the second act, the choral tableaux provide well-measured dramatic and textural contrasts to the solo vocals.

Tenor Paul Appleby and the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Antony and Cleopatra. © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

In the first act Newsreel interlude for orchestra alone, Adams goes briefly back to his minimalist roots, providing the scene with quasi-cinematic accompaniment; an effective one-off within a musical score of notable complexity.

Among the nine supporting roles, the most substantial ones include those of Octavia and Charmian, the former being Caesar’s sister and Antony spouse in ceremonial marriage and the latter an attendant on Cleopatra. Memorably sung by Elisabeth Deshong and Taylor Raven, both roles add their commentaries to the main storyline with evocative vocal contributions. In fact, the very last words of the opera are sung by Charmian, bringing Adams’s haunting rendition of Cleopatra’s passing to its subtle close.

A classic to be, Antony and Cleopatra opens a new chapter in Adams’s ever-evolving musical career. Following its seven San Francisco performances, the opera is to travel to Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona next fall, for further performances under the composer’s baton. Completing the circle, Antony and Cleopatra is to open at the Metropolitan Opera in 2025. And from there to the repertoire.

San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Eun Sun Kim, conductor

Elkhanah Pulitzer, director

Mimi Lien, set designer

Constance Hoffman, costume designer

David Finn, lighting designer

Bill Morrison, projection designer

Mark Grey, sound designer & mixing engineer

Amina Edris, soprano (Cleopatra)

Gerald Finley, bass-baritone (Antony)

Paul Appleby, tenor (Caesar)

Taylor Raven, mezzo-soprano (Charmian)

Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano (Octavia)

Alfred Walker, bass-baritone (Enobarbus)

Brenton Ryan, tenor (Eros)

Hadleigh Adams, baritone (Agrippa)

Philip Skinner, bass-baritone (Lepidus)

Timothy Murray, baritone (Scarus)

Gabrielle Beteag, mezzo-soprano (Iras)

Patrick Blackwell, bass-baritone (Maecenas)

John Adams: Antony and Cleopatra (2018-22) – Opera in 2 Acts

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

Saturday 10 September, 7.30 pm

© Jari Kallio

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