Lyric Opera

Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself has said,

Hell, I could write a better adaptation of Shakespeare than THAT!

Such sentiments were perhaps not altogether foreign to those who bugged out early from the opening-night presentation of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Lyric Opera. In all justice, those who fled before the end of the first act and during the intermission should have had the patience to hang on to the end; it was a very short evening, after all, and it’s not likely that they will ever see this work performed again. But the numbers who left early paled beside the stampede that took place as the curtain went down on the second and final act. Even I, hard-bitten as I am, was amazed and a bit embarrassed at the unseemly rush to depart before even a modicum of polite applause had been dispensed to the hardworking players.

Antony has had a brief and checkered history since debuting as the commissioned opener of the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. Although it was written as a star vehicle for Leontyne Price, her formidable presence was unable to make the work a success. The reasons generally trotted out to explain the opera’s lukewarm reception are that it was considered overlong by the audience and that the production, designed by Franco Zeffirelli, was overdone, in both the aesthetic and mechanical senses. Barber, assisted by Gian Carlo Menotti, made haste to correct the first of these difficulties by performing radical surgery on the score, and he is credited in Lyric’s program as librettist (after Shakespeare) for this version, whereas Zeffirelli is listed as the adapter for the 1966 original.

Unfortunately, the weight-loss program inflicted on the libretto–already taken from one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays–has left us with a story line that is a bit choppy; and though there are a few fine moments in the score, there is an overall lack of musical inventiveness to gloss over these deficiencies. The admirable sets by Michael Yeargan and generally restrained staging by Elijah Moshinsky certainly lay to rest any ghosts of the Zeffirelli production, but decent sets and staging, by themselves, will be insufficient to win this work a place in the regular repertory. Given the late-20th-century conceit that elevates directors and designers to positions of decisive influence in the world of opera, it is natural to blame a failed work on the elements under their control. But many a great work has been victimized by a poor initial production without languishing in obscurity for years; the blame for this mess has to be shared.

The sets are the high point of this production. Austere and mobile, the mirrored panels change unobtrusively and chameleonlike scene by scene. This flexibility is very important, as Antony has a lot of scenes by operatic standards. The direction is well suited to the mood of the music, alternately static for the chorus and most of the principals, but rather more lively for the name roles. Moshinsky has inserted several homoerotic elements–perhaps to illustrate that Antony is “the abstract of all faults that men follow”–including a darkly lit orgy. One might fault him, however, for confusing the Emperor Augustus with his grandnephew, Caligula: young Gaius was the Caesar physically infatuated with his sister, not the victor of Actium. The costuming was generally adequate, although it looked as if some of the chorus had come to the stage in their dressing gowns for their big lineup numbers.

Vocally the evening was unremarkable. Most of the ideas in Barber’s score benefit the character of Cleopatra. Catherine Malfitano brought great intensity to the role, especially in the finale, her death scene. Still, she was unable to emerge from the shadow cast by Leontyne Price. Richard Cowan seemed vocally a bit callow for the role of Antony. His baritone is somewhat colorless, and has not yet come into its own. (Indeed, the show suffers from the similarity of Cowan’s timbre to that of Eric Halfvarson, who plays Antony’s sidekick Enobarbus.) Like Sam Ramey in this season’s Mefistofele, Cowan gets to show off his bare chest a lot. His acting is decent and generally makes him the center of attention unless he is sharing the stage with Malfitano.

Perhaps because of the extensive revision of this show, the lesser principals never seem to develop any individuating traits. They seem to be mere fragments of characters. This is understandable and expected in the several characters who have only a few lines for the evening, but even the role of Caesar gave Jacque Trussel little scope for any emotion other than petulance until the penultimate scene, when his regret over Antony’s death finally gave this character some depth. This does not really seem to be Trussel’s fault–he has established himself as a fine singing actor in other productions here–but rather that of the underlying dramatic weakness in the text. The character of Enobarbus suffers from a similar lack of continuity; he seems a mere appendage for most of the show, then gives vent to inconsolable grief for an unseen treason against the person of Antony. The dramatic sense has been hacked from the libretto in the interest of providing a shorter evening.

From the pit Richard Buckley extracted the most from the attractive portions of the score (the love duet and Cleopatra’s demise), while not allowing the martial “Roman” music or languorous “Egyptian” music to degenerate into bombast as it might have.

According to Sir Rudolf Bing, Franco Zeffirelli “overproduced” Antony and Cleopatra because he “was–we all were–somewhat doubtful about the music.” That doubt was, we can now see, well placed. Poor old Franco has taken the fall for the debacle for too long.