Perhaps the most risky undertaking an English-speaking composer can undertake is to make a Shakespeare opera. Although the repertoire contains several adaptations of Shakespeare, only one version by a native speaker has found a safe place on the international stage: Benjamin Britten’s 1960 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The dangers of bardic opera are obvious. The works generate their own indelible music in the reader’s mind, and the recitations of famous actors remain in the memory. A safer approach is to appropriate the drama and psychology of Shakespeare and substitute a more modern text. Verdi and Arrigo Boito did the same in “Otello” and “Falstaff”; so did Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes in “The Tempest”, which premiered in 2004 and has proven its durability. Britten’s singular feat was establishing the “Dream” line by line as he imposed his own spooky, agile persona.
John Adams, the composer of “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic,” has entered the ring with a finely crafted and fiercely expressive version of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which premiered in September. 10, at the San Francisco Opera. The libretto, which Adams devised in consultation with stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer and playwright Lucia Scheckner, is predominantly Shakespearean, with some interpolations from Plutarch and Virgil. A hyperkinetic opening, with violas striking a galloping figure and winds racing like doves, hints that Adams, like Britten before him, will bring an unmistakable personal voice. You get the feeling that the composer is not intimidated by the task. This contrasts with Brett Dean’s overly self-aware version of “Hamlet,” which was seen at the Met last season.
Adams has been writing operas since the 1980s, and has long since established an extraordinary ability to make music from the English language. Instead of fixed, sonic patterns, she has perfected a malleable vocal line that follows the irregular rhythms of thought and speech. She considers how she handles the phrase “The eastern hemisphere beckoned us” in “Nixon”: a fast triplet pattern in “hemisphere” causes the word to shift over time, delaying the next accent. The richer the language, the stronger Adam’s response. When, at the end of the first act of “Doctor Atomic,” J. Robert Oppenheimer sings John Donne’s “Batter My Heart,” the music’s anguished eloquence ages perception of the poem.
At the same time, Adams possesses a melodic signature that is independent of his literary sources. The crucial moment in “Harmonielehre,” his key piece from 1985, is the emergence, midway through the first movement, of an expansive, ascending and descending theme in the strings and brass, more or less in the key of E-flat minor. . It is an intensely theatrical, gestural music, a monologue without words. On “Antony and Cleopatra,” similar marauding Adamsian lines emerge in the orchestra, now aligned with the settings of a venerable text. The collision with Shakespeare seems to have been inevitable.
“Antony” is the first play Adams has created without Peter Sellars, who masterminded “Nixon,” “Klinghoffer,” “Atomic” and other politically charged projects. Those who wish to see Adams tackle pressing issues of the day may be disappointed, but she has earned the right to step away from contemporary controversies. “Antony” still has political overtones, especially in its portrayal of Octavius Caesar, the future Emperor Augustus, who defeats rebellious lovers and exposes himself as a soulless dictator-in-training.
Plutarch, in his life of Antony, wanted to show how a great soldier had fallen prey to female temptations. Shakespeare complicated that scheme by giving Cleopatra an aura of literary majesty. Adams further undermines Roman morality by allowing Cleopatra to have the first and last word. Instead of Philo’s introductory lines about “The triple pillar of the world was changed / Into a harlot’s fool”—words that Caesar will utter later in the opera, with spitting poison—Cleopatra and her maidens act out a scene imported from “The Taming de la Musaraña”, dressing the drunken Antonio in feminine attire. The notion that Antonio is “bareboat” takes on a playful vibe, as if to say, “So what?”
However, the love story of Antony and Cleopatra is not an oasis of illicit sensuality, on the order of the various incarnations of “Romeo and Juliet”, or its delusional Wagnerian cousin, “Tristan and Iseult”. The rat-a-tat, scherzando energy of the opening bars is sustained throughout the first act, leading up to Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium. There is something desperate and restless about the antics of these middle-aged lovers, who are losing ground to a new imperial dispensation. The dialogue unfolds with Adams’s practiced naturalism, but the orchestra seethes underneath, delivering short, explosive outbursts that variously suggest Cleopatra’s tantrums, Antony’s bouts of self-pity, and the nervous reactions of her subordinates. All this instrumental turmoil conveys the feeling of characters caught up in a swift current leading to certain catastrophe.
The music for Caesar is disciplined and mechanical. Where the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra is filled with rapid time signature changes, Caesar enters with a giant 2/4 orchestral, reminiscent of Adams’ minimalist roots. The part is written for a tenor, and it often presses into an uncomfortably high register, recalling Mao Tse-tung’s bleating monologues in “Nixon.” At the culmination of Caesar’s development, he proclaims himself emperor and addresses a mob that sings: “Rome, yours alone, with terrible influence, / To rule mankind and make the world obey.” These words come from John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid, but fit Shakespeare perfectly. The orchestra embodies a vicious grandeur that smacks of “Nixon” again, this time Jiang Qing’s totalitarian spectacle.
Cleopatra’s death, by contrast, unfolds in an atmosphere of unflappable serenity, implicitly defying Caesar’s cold new order. Underpinning the scene are mournful, majestic figures descending on harps, nodding to Stravinsky’s neoclassical ballet “Orpheus.” A resplendent soundscape of gongs, celesta, and dulcimer-like cymbal extends the spellbound mood. It’s an old and all too familiar trope: an exotic woman who expires at the end of an opera. But Cleopatra leaves on her own terms, choosing to have no part in “this wild world.” Her vocal line gravitates toward the lower end of the soprano range, her contours well-formed and unhurried. Her calm composure is, perhaps, prophetic of another kind of power.
With sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Constance Hoffman, and lighting by David Finn, the sleek, stylized Pulitzer production sets the action in the 1930s, blending the seedy splendor of pre-Code Hollywood with the monumental bombast of fascist Italy. The link makes sense, given that film values influenced fascist iconography: silent movies helped popularize the so-called “Roman salute,” which doesn’t seem to have existed in ancient times. Filmmaker Bill Morrison, a master manipulator of found footage, provides appropriate video projections, including footage of Mussolini’s daughter’s marriage.
At the heart of the conception is the Machiavellian Caesar, who was played with charismatic wickedness by tenor Paul Appleby on opening night. Wearing a blue suit, hair slicked back and gesturing floridly as he squirmed in his seat, Appleby created a vivid image of hollow authority. Is he a smartly dressed dictator? Or a cheeky studio head? The psychological differences between the two are minor. Appleby maintained the beauty of tone despite the exacting demands of the role, and her delivery of Caesar’s ode to Roman might was a tour de force that drew restless applause from the audience. This tyrant was both laughable and terrifying: we have met him before and we will meet him again.
Cleopatra is presented as a star who has emerged from the culture industry and is trying to dominate it. The role was written for Julia Bullock, who dropped out due to pregnancy. We won’t see a definitive account of “Antony” until that lavishly gifted singer puts her stamp on the paper. Amina Edris, who stepped in at short notice, sang powerfully and delicately, though her low notes were a bit vague. Antony was played by the incomparable Gerald Finley, who originated Oppenheimer in “Doctor Atomic.” On opening night, Finley seemed unsure of the character, his body language was strange and his tone was nonchalant. When I watched a broadcast of a later performance, I heard more about the thoughtful richness that is Finley’s trademark. In minor roles, Alfred Walker was noted for his wryly hesitant Enobarbus and Philip Skinner for his gruff and powerful Lepidus. Eun Sun Kim, the vibrant young music director of the San Francisco Opera, conducted with a razor-sharp command and clear understanding of the Adams style.
The premiere of “Antony” was the first production of the San Francisco Opera’s centennial season. Those familiar with the history of the theater might have wondered whether approaching this subject in a celebratory context risked failure: when, in 1966, Samuel Barber’s Italian adaptation of “Antony” opened the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, it turned out to be an exuberant failure. . Adams’ score is a more musically distinctive creation, but the real difference has to do with context. By the end of the 20th century, premieres at the Met had become rare events, filled with anticipation. Adams, a longtime Northern California resident, has seen five of his works staged at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, to the point that his presence there has become routine. . It’s worth remembering that the company’s first full season opened with a piece by a living composer, one that was newer than “Nixon in China” is now: “La Bohème.” ♦