Review: Orchestra shines in new opera ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

Thirty-five years in the past, John Adams’ first opera, which modified the way in which opera can be made and matter in America, had its first public workshop efficiency in a small theater, the Herbst, subsequent door to San Francisco Opera’s Conflict Memorial Opera Home. It was live performance studying of “Nixon in China,” with the singers and piano accompaniment.

Within the viewers was the then-head of San Francisco Opera, Terence McEwen, who slept by way of the primary two scenes and ostentatiously walked out earlier than the tip of the primary act. He was stated to have proclaimed that his firm would solely carry out “Nixon” over his useless physique. It will definitely did — throughout his tenure. And much more, as soon as McEwen had retired from the corporate a 12 months later.

Saturday evening, San Francisco Opera, America’s second-oldest opera firm after the Metropolitan in New York, started its second century with the world premiere of Adams’ fifth opera, “Antony and Cleopatra,” thus cementing probably the most vital relationship between any opera firm and composer within the final century. San Francisco Opera has now commissioned or co-commissioned 4 of Adams’ 5 main operas and given the world premiere of the final three.

With “Nixon,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Doctor Atomic” and “Girls of the Golden West,” Adams and his shut and essential collaborator, director Peter Sellars, revealed the mythic dimension of current historical past within the first three and of the Gold Rush in “Girls.” “Nixon” (which lastly reached San Francisco in 2012, 14 years after McEwen’s dying) checked out how the perceived variations of East and West perpetrated the Chilly Conflict. In the meantime, “Klinghoffer” continues to show stunning in its explication of the roots of terrorism. Each operas boast Alice Goodman libretti that promise to change into lasting works of literature.

“Doctor Atomic” exposes the human aspect of the making of the atomic bomb; “Girls” uncovers the stunning foundational roots of the exploitative capitalism that has in the end given rise to the careless excesses of Silicon Valley. These libretti are putting assemblages from documentary and literary sources by Sellars that Adams’ music brings to life. In his operas, whereas ever stuffed with spectacle, historical past and delusion are made private.

“Antony and Cleopatra,” although, is totally different. For the primary time, Adams has tried music theater with out Sellars, electing as a substitute to work with the younger director Elkhanah Pulitzer (who staged a extremely praised “Nixon” that Adams carried out with the L.A. Phil in 2017) and dramaturg Lucia Scheckner.

For no matter motive, it’s tough to flee the symbolism of Adams now turning to the very play and place that introduced Sellars to public discover. Whereas an undergraduate in 1978, Sellars staged Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” within the swimming pool of Harvard’s Adams Home. The Harvard Crimson described it as “scene after scene of slapstick splashing and general mayhem.” Ernest Fleischmann, the previous head of the L.A. Phil, noticed it and determined then and there that Sellars would sooner or later have a job with the orchestra. In 1992, Sellars was employed as the primary orchestra dramaturg wherever.

Gerald Finley as Antony with the San Francisco Opera Refrain in John Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra.”

(Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)

There is no such thing as a mayhem in Adams’ “Antony.” The composer himself original an easy libretto from Shakespeare’s textual content in session with Pulitzer and Scheckner. There’s mandatory paring down of this huge saga, limiting the variety of characters. The main target is on Antony and Cleopatra as mature lovers. A bit like Adams’ Nixon and Mao, they’re unsure growing older rulers placing up a very good entrance as they attempt to preserve their realms viable in a altering world that not has use for them — however won’t ever, as we’re as soon as extra reminded, neglect their tragedy.

The opera unfolds in two lengthy acts (80 and 85 minutes, respectively). Shakespeare gives little room for arias, though Adams borrows from Dryden’s translations of Virgil’s “Aeneid” to offer one to Caesar, who stands for the power of modernity in his empire constructing. Adams has likened that in his program notice to the way in which Silicon Valley masters of the universe function.

The outcome, although, on first listening to can sound like an limitless stream of parlando singing, extra ongoing narration than operatic musing, music confined to underscoring Shakespeare’s unbroachable phrases. Pulitzer’s cautiously fluid manufacturing and Mimi Lien’s tasteful, architectural units provide no innovation. The costumes by Constance Hoffman and video projections riff on the glitz, however not the sexiness, of the Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 “Cleopatra.”

The purpose of Claudette Colbert as a Hollywood splendid of the Egyptian queen, nevertheless, is misplaced in narrative ordinariness. Even the opening duet between the lovers falls flat with surprisingly little present of ardour.

The singers are excellent, however characters fail to return to life. A lot of this will likely must do with the path. Gerald Finley proved a complexly fascinating J. Robert Oppenheimer in “Doctor Atomic.” His lovemaking scene with Julia Bullock in Sellars’ manufacturing at Santa Fe Opera was overpowering. Within the love duet that opens the brand new opera, for which Adams borrowed a couple of vigorous strains from “The Taming of the Shrew,” Finley’s Mark Antony is with out warmth. However he stews magnificently, rising outdated ungracefully, the previous hero tragically unable to let go of his ego.

Bullock was Adams’ muse for this Cleopatra however, about to offer delivery, she has needed to bow out of the San Francisco performances. She’s going to be a part of the manufacturing when it travels to Barcelona and the Met over the following couple of years.

Fortuitously the soprano Amina Edris, who occurs to be Egyptian, brings efficient sparkle to her Cleopatra. At her most extravagant, the queen delivers the form of wonderful vocal fireworks that celebrated the over-the-top qualities of Madame Mao in “Nixon.” On this Edris shines. However Adams’ portrayal of Cleopatra is way richer, and Edris, who sings the rhythmically intricate Shakespeare settings with extra consideration to accuracy than dramatic inflection, will want time to totally internalize an extended, tough half. Tenor Paul Appleby, one other Adams veteran (“Girls”), is a Caesar disconcerting in his confidence, exhibiting a calculating vibrancy that turns into the face of fascism.

Four faces projected big on a stage with many opera singers below

Paul Appleby as Caesar with the San Francisco Opera Refrain in John Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra.”

(Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)

As with all of Adams’ music theater, singers are amplified, and the amplification has continually improved with new gear. Together with his common sound designer, Mark Gray, voices ring true and mix superbly with the orchestra.

However it’s within the orchestra the place the magnificence of the opera lies. Ever churning, ever altering, ever exploring nuance, the orchestra reveals a lot in regards to the characters within the opera — their internal essence and, to nice extent, their outer elements. It’s the tuba, for example, that lets us really feel the facility of Caesar. Instrument after instrument will get its theatrical second.

Adams does have his amusing moments. A composer who usually contextualizes with music from the previous in surprising methods, he riffs on the well-known watery opening of “Das Rheingold,” conflating Cleopatra’s Nile to Wagner’s Rhine. However the tone of “Antony” stays soberly severe all through, lacking the startling moments of humor and whimsy that usually discovered a method into his collaborations with Sellars. The usage of refrain is often marvelous however restricted.

This primarily leaves the drama to San Francisco Opera’s music director Eun Solar Kim, who conducts with impressively relentless enthusiasm and turns into a central determine. Should you can’t get the difficult rhythm proper, Adams’ music falls aside. She will get it proper, however, not in contrast to Edris, with out but a way of spontaneity.

Is Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra” a disappointment? The theatricality is, as staged, pedestrian. The conformity to Shakespeare leaves little room for startling revelation. That is an “Antony” that’s no Sellars swim in opposition to the tide, no dip within the Nile.

However what it importantly demonstrates is late, mature Adams. There’s practically three hours’ value of orchestral writing to delve into. For all its ordinariness within the opera home, the orchestra abounds, promising musical subtleties to be found and savored. After a have a look at the rating, its musical subtleties are ready to be found and savored. Every of Adams’ operas, furthermore, has gone by way of revisions. Second performances of “Doctor Atomic” and “Girls” solely totally got here alive after they reached the Dutch Nationwide Opera a 12 months after their San Francisco premieres.

Additionally it is necessary to recollect that each one of Adams’ operas has had initially combined — and in some circumstances hostile — first receptions. McEwen was hardly within the crucial minority at that “Nixon” workshop, together with on this newspaper.

Extra hearings are wanted. And, to San Francisco Opera’s credit score, extra are on the way in which, and never simply within the opera home, the place it runs by way of Oct. 5. The Sept. 18 Sunday matinee will likely be live-streamed on the corporate’s web site and made accessible for 48 hours. After extra hearings, we will discuss.

‘Antony and Cleopatra’

The place: Conflict Memorial Opera Home, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 2 p.m. Sunday (additionally live-streamed and archived for 2 days) and Oct. 2. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23, 27 and Oct. 5.

Tickets: $25 – $450, $27.50 to stream


Working time: 3 hours, 17 minutes