Sunday, July 21, 2013

Antony and Cleopatra

I became interested when I noticed that there is a complete film of Samuel Barber's opera Antony and Cleopatra on YouTube.   All I have known about it has been rumors of a giant catastrophe.

This opera was composed for the opening of the New Met on September 16, 1966 with Leontyne Price as Cleopatra.  She is known to have loved this work, but all that remains that we can hear of her performance is an audio recording of the death scene.




According to the Met archives, this opera was given only one performance which was broadcast.  As a Price fan, I feel it would be wonderful to hear this. There can be no question that the Met has at least an audio recording of the complete opera. 

Everything was criticized about this opening.  The preparation seems to have been inadequate, resulting in an embarrassing performance by the orchestra.  Carping about the text is a little silly, don't you think?  It is from the Shakespeare play and selected by Franco Zeffirelli.  Operas always have less text than plays.  This performance was pre-supertitles, so perhaps that is the problem.  It isn't one of Shakespeare's best plays but has an outstanding role for a woman.

The complete film on YouTube (pt1, pt2) is of a performance that occurred at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1991 in a revised version created by Gian Carlo Menotti.  Here is the cast of that performance.

Cleopatra - Catherine Malfitano, soprano
Mark Antony - Richard Cowan, baritone
Octavius Caesar - Jacque Trussel, tenor
Enobarbus - Eric Halfvarson, bass
Charmian - Wendy White, mezzo-soprano
Iras - Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano
A Messenger - Paul Jacobsen, tenor

Conductor - Richard Buckley

I don't mind Malfitano but she is not in the same league with Price, one of the greatest singers of the 20th century.   Everyone sings big.  Richard Cowan is a gorgeous, hunky baritone, and Catherine is beautiful enough.  After all, it is Cleopatra's infinite variety that pleases.  And perhaps that is what is missing--variety.

The work is unrelentingly somber, following slavishly the tenets of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.  Think how much more fun is the ever changing Cleopatra of Giulio Cesare.  I cannot think of an opera more intensely tragic and dark without any hints of self-parody or cynicism.

I am able to imagine a singing actress who could make a success of this.  She would have to be a giant.  People are more inclined to sympathize with women with tuberculosis or dying geishas.  Your knowledge of opera is incomplete without it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How did I miss this? Thank you from a Sam Barber fan!! I've never heard the whole opera, and although at the time I was living less than 3 hours from Chicago, I was too ill to travel.

Lyric productions, btw, comprised almost my entire early opera education, mainly in the '70s, early 80s.

Rackon