Barber Antony and Cleopatra

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Barber Antony and Cleopatra

  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Antony and Cleopatra

The success of Barber's earlier opera, Vanessa, at the Metropolitan, led that great New York opera house to commission him to write a grand piece for the opening of the new building in the Lincoln Center. Barber opted for Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, and the producer, Franco Zeffirelli, together with Barber, devised a neatly compact libretto using only Shakespeare's words, radically cut and rearranged, with Shakespeare's five acts and 41 scenes becoming three acts and 16 scenes. Zeffirelli in his dual role courted disaster by deciding as stage director to exploit the extravagant resources of the new opera house, Hollywood-style, with hundreds of supernumaries and even a camel or two among the live animals. The near-fiasco of the first performance is a matter of operatic history, and it silenced Barber as a composer for five years. He revised the score with the help of his close friend and earlier operatic collaborator, Gian-Carlo Menotti. That version was given first at the Juilliard School and later at the Spoleto Festival, where in 1983 this welcome first recording was made.
Leontyne Price recorded two of Cleopatra's big scenes in 1968 for RCA (SB6799, 8/69—nla) and they provided a fair sample of the way Barber sets the text, generally not rising to an overt 'grand tune', Puccini-style, but giving warm and fluent support to Shakespeare's lines in a sympathetically late-romantic manner. This complete recording now reinforces the feeling that this is a work still seriously under appreciated, not quite the major masterpiece that Barber aimed at, nor yet quite so effective in adopting the old-fashioned grand operatic manner as Walton's Troilus and Cressida (a work closely related, and an influence on Barber, I am sure) but a work full of memorable ideas both musical and dramatic.
That makes it specially suitable for appreciation on record, even if this live recording is not ideal with its odd balances and a cast that is strong but variable. I cannot imagine that the Spoleto setting provided the sort of grand presentation such an opera really requires, and some high dramatic moments lose weight from sounding too close, but the recording is spacious and atmospheric enough to bring out the richness of orchestral textures and the commitment of the performance under the Romanian, Christian Badea. Standing out among the soloists is Esther Hinds as Cleopatra, who also snag that role in the Juilliard performances. As recorded it is a voice at sweetness under pressure. The bass-baritone, Jeffrey Wells, as Antony is less smooth on the ear, with the microphone exaggerating his vibratoo, but he gives a strong, thoughtful performance with words admirably clear, as they are from most of the others in the cast.
I would now like to hear the original version. Andrew Porter in a detailed analysis of the changes in a long article in The New Yorker suggested that an amalgam of the two might provide an even better answer. I suspect that some of the impression of shortwindedness that the present version conveys in its rapid sequence of brief scenes has been underlined by the cuts which Menotti suggested in the revision. What I am sure is pure gain is the insertion of several rich and romantic interludes and a big love duet before Actium, giving the piece a more red-blooded operatic flavour. That duet has a text taken not from Shakespeare but from Beaumont and Fletcher (The bloody brother) and Porter stigmatizes it as being ''like Lehar or perhaps Victor Herbert'', but that I count quite unfair. It is like Walton rather, but it is even more like the full-throated romantic barber, and I only wish that he had dared to pull out the stops a little more often instead of being if anything too reticent. At least with this recording the evidence has become far more accessible.
The producer explains that in addition to recording four complete state performances, there were two 'make-up' sessions. That was primarily for restoring original orchestrations to passages which for stage reasons had had to be modified, as for example, having an orchestral whip in Act 1 scene 3 instead of the stage whip used in the production. Editing has been skilful. Stage noises are sometimes obtrusive, but audience noises are happily few.'

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