Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra by NYCO

Is this a company for American singers or American composers? Or
bel canto and Handel rarities? Or neglected twentieth century
masterpieces? Or the urban extension of Glimmerglass? Or outrageous modern
staging experiments?

If this was the end (and we all hope it’s not), they went out with a
major league bang: spectacular singing of an unfamiliar and worthy American
work by an enormous cast, spectacular playing of an intricate and rewarding
score, a joy in performing on all sides, and in hearing it on our part. This
was grand opera excitement at a feverish pitch.

It was certainly an Antony to rank with any — not that
there has been much in the way of competition. (I believe you can count the
number of stagings the work has had on two hands.) Commissioned to open the
new Met in 1966 in the full unflattering light of worldwide publicity,
designed to display the acoustic and scenic glories of the new house,
Antony fell victim to confusion and overweening ambition on nearly
all sides. Zeffirelli’s excessively grandiose production called for
full operational capability of brand new machinery that, predictably,
malfunctioned in every possible way. Rudolf Bing had resolved to present four
new productions in that very first week. Barber’s idiom was troubling
to the conservative Met audience (which had heard Wozzeck and
Peter Grimes and Jenufa, but had not yet taken them to its
heart). The complex orchestration and the choral parts demanded more
rehearsal time than they could possibly get in the confusion of that autumn.
And Barber’s setting of Zeffirelli’s libretto, derived from one
of Shakespeare’s longest and most elaborate tragedies, was anything but
taut. It was a world-famous fiasco, and nearly everyone blamed the least
offending party: the opera itself.

But even shorn of an hour of music in the revision superintended by Barber
himself with Giancarlo Menotti, Antony and Cleopatra is still very
much what it was designed to be at its 1966 premiere: the grandest grand
opera ever composed by an American. Good as it often is, remarkable as it
always is, it cannot become a repertory item because it would fail to make
its point at less than gala pitch. (It would be ideal for summer festival
performance, such as are given by the opera companies of Seattle or San
Francisco.) Lovable and memorable tunes might give us something to hang on to
if the cast is less than top notch (as with, say, Verdi’s Don
), but this dramatic, declamatory score has few lovable tunes:
even at its grandest, the opera demands concentration of us. Still, with
familiarity, an audience cannot fail to grow for this work, and in fifty
years or so (following the Don Carlos precedent), I foresee
Antony will be so popular there will arise a demand for a return to
the original full-length work. (I want to hear it now.)

Our concentration was amply rewarded at the NYCO/Carnegie Hall
performances thrillingly led by NYCO’s music director, George Manahan.
Subtitles helped us when the chorus was obliged to sing “O Antony,
leave thy lascivious wassails” — as they do, repeatedly, but solo
lines were comprehensible by themselves. The orchestration, which might have
been muddled in a pit, was crystalline and full of intriguing effects. There
was first of all a distinction between scenes, primarily martial in
character, set in Rome or in Roman camps: Trumpets and other brasses sounded
a bit like a Hollywood toga epic. These were contrasted with wonderful
sinuous figures and tinkling percussion for scenes of Egypt and
Cleopatra’s corrupt, intrigue-ridden court. Barber’s Antony and
Cleopatra incarnate these two male and female manners of orchestration and
vocal melody, and their encounter leads inexorably to his destruction.
(Caesar, in contrast, encounters Cleopatra but never ceases to
“orate” with brass support: Love conquers almost all, but Rome
conquers love.)

Especially imaginative was Antony’s death scene, when, deceived by a false
report of Cleopatra’s suicide, he orders his valet to kill him, and the
valet kills himself instead: Antony’s fatal resolve emerges over a drum
solo, then a keening melody for s solo flute enters for the interchange
between Antony and the valet (brightly sung by Kevin Massey), and as the
actual suicides approach, cellos and basses pluck the same rhythmic figure as
the drum … ominous and magical and somehow very Roman in the heroic,
Plutarchian sense.

The enormous cast were strong to the last guardsman. Lauren Flanigan, a
major singing actress who has sometimes had difficulties (as Verdi’s
Lady Macbeth, Strauss’s Christine Storch,
Thomson’s Susan B. Anthony and Barber’s
Vanessa) penetrating a large orchestra in the unfriendly acoustic of
the New York State Theater, had no trouble filling Carnegie Hall in this
soaring, Strauss-like part, and seemed especially to enjoy her whimsical,
flirtatious exchanges with Antony, with the messenger who announces
Antony’s marriage to Octavia, with her ladies in waiting. I could have
used a more voluptuous, insinuating sound for her love music, such as the
young Leontyne Price surely brought to it, but Flanigan was assured and
effective. Her ladies were sung superbly by mezzos on the verge of major
careers: Linda Vlasek Nolan, forthrightly dramatic, and Sandra Piques Eddy,
luscious and dark-hued.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose Met debut last winter as Ned Keene in Peter
was striking even when surrounded by a huge, excellent cast, was
just as impressive in this Shakespearean colossus of a leading role. If the
City Opera still has its glorious production of Mefistofele, this is
the man to renew it; if it hasn’t, some company should present one. He
has the presence and the range, the power and the legato for it. His Antony
was both leader of men and pensive, even depressed, as he considered the ruin
his passions have led him to in hollow, reflective phrases.

Simon O’Neill, another New Zealander, making his New York debut,
tossed off Caesar’s ungrateful lines as if they were vocalises. Caesar
is a Strauss-tenor sort of role, impossibly high, yet O’Neill sang it
with stylish ease. David Pittsinger, who has been doing accomplished work all
over town for years, and who takes on the Ezio Pinza role in South Pacific
this month, sang an admirable Enobarbus, Antony’s guilt-ridden
confidante. And so it went through role after role — surely many of
these parts would be doubled in an actual repertory performance, but the
company seemed eager to show us just how many terrific young singers they
had. And this was the revised edition of the score, with six roles

These performances showed us a company in excellent potential health, and
a score ripe for rediscovery, ready to take its rightful place in the
American repertory.

John Yohalem

image_description=Lauren Flanigan (Cleopatra) [Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera]
product_title=Samuel Barber: Antony and Cleopatra (Op. 40, revised version)
product_by=Cleopatra: Lauren Flanigan; Iras: Laura Vlasak Nolen; Charmian: Sandra Piques Eddy; Antony: Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Octavius Caesar: Simon O’Neill; Enobarbus: David Pittsinger; Eros: Kevin Massey. New York City Opera orchestra and chorus conducted by George Manahan. Peformance of January 16.
product_id=Above: Lauren Flanigan (Cleopatra) [Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera]