At its first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1966, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra acquired a reputation as a mythic turkey that, 42 years later, it still hasn’t lived down. The opera world has too long a memory for fiascos, and it’s long past time to let Barber’s opulent score march into the mainstream repertoire. New York City Opera’s loving and confident concert performance at Carnegie Hall last week gave it a nudge in the right direction.
What’s the problem, really? It’s a grand opera about love among ancient royals, which always seemed like an odd choice for an American composer in the nuclear age. It implies a more luxuriant staging than most companies can manage, and it demands an honest-to-goodness diva with queenly allure and an ermine voice. But in return for coping with these problems, Antony and Cleopatra offers clearly etched characters and music that ranges from solid to sublime. It’s just too good a work to be left to molder between one-offs. Sure, there’s more than a whiff of the sixties sword-and-sandals blockbuster in the Ben-Hurian trumpets, the exotic play of drums and flute, and the alternating passages of plaintiveness and pomp. But “Give Me My Robe,” Cleopatra’s last, pre-expiration aria, is a big fat ruby of a tune that deserves its gilded setting.
At Carnegie Hall, the job of selling that number—and the rest of the epic—fell to Lauren Flanigan, who made it entirely believable that the ancient world could crack from the force of her desires. The upper third of her register had a hard, unlubricated sound, and she summoned enough neurotic intensity to suggest she needed Ativan more than Antony. But she displayed the vocal resources, the total commitment, and a powerful enough personality to carry Barber’s epic practically alone. She delivered every note as if it were of vital importance, even when not all of them actually were.
In her presence, Rome’s heroes paled. Baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes sang the role of Antony with stoic professionalism, but it was hard to sense what it was about him that made the Queen of Egypt quite so unhinged. Simon O’Neill was more thrillingly imperial as Caesar, his bright tenor glinting like a sword in the Mediterranean sun. Even so, if wars were settled by singing contests, we’d be writing in hieroglyphs today.
There was something poignant about watching a company in the throes of downsizing—and in the midst of a virtually fallow season—put on such a sumptuous show, and do it with such panache. George Manahan conducted his underworked orchestra and chorus with explosive vigor, and everyone seemed happy to be making music—especially this music—together again. Barber’s mistreated score got some much-needed vindication, and City Opera chalked up a triumph in pessimistic times. Now if only both of them could capitalize on their momentum.