Roman Ruin

Aural Fixation: Louis Otey as Antony and Carol Vaness as Cleopatra.Photo: Hiroyuki, Ltd.

As I recall it, the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, back when the opera opened the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, was not quite the titanic disaster that legend would have us believe. That said, it was definitely a rocky occasion: for Met general manager Rudolf Bing, who had watched the company’s expensive new stage machinery break down before his eyes during rehearsals; for Leontyne Price as Cleopatra, who got trapped inside a huge pyramid; for director Franco Zeffirelli, whose outrageously glitzy production virtually obliterated the opera (“Oh, my God, a gay asp!” exclaimed one fed-up spectator behind me at the dress rehearsal as Cleopatra applied a garish spangled snake to her breast); and especially for Barber, who was so crushed by the whole experience that he left the country and composed scarcely anything of consequence for the rest of his life.

He did, however, think enough of the score to revise it drastically in 1974, a version first seen at the Juilliard School, recorded for New World Records, staged some years later in Chicago, and recently given a concert performance in Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra. Even so, a lot of problems remain. With a text drawn directly from Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra never seemed like a congenial subject for Barber, whose elegant neo-romantic style was as ill-suited to describe Roman pageantry and politics as it was to portray a mature romantic couple whose lovemaking deals more in verbal irony than in flights of passion. By trimming characters and side issues down to the bone, the revised opera only seems sketchier and more lacking in dramatic momentum than ever, while the lush new love duet, handsome as it sounds, doesn’t really add the extra musical dimension that the two leading characters so sorely lack.

It would be a shame to lose all the good bits, though: the delicious “moody music” for the bored Cleopatra of Act One, the seductive vision of the queen’s sumptuous pleasure barge as it sails down the Nile, or nearly all of the last act, which dwells on the lovers’ protracted suicides. Soon after the opera’s unhappy premiere, Barber assembled a suite that includes most of Cleopatra’s best music—Price sang it lusciously in concert and on recordings, even though she never chose to sing the role onstage again. According to a friend who encountered her at the Juilliard revival in 1975, the soprano confessed that she broke out in a cold sweat upon hearing the first notes, and one can scarcely blame her.

As Cleopatra for the American Composers Orchestra, Carol Vaness looked appropriately sultry in a pair of slinky Hollywood gowns that generously showed a lot of leg. Unfortunately, her soprano sounded alarmingly passé, hobbled by an unpleasant beat that intruded on all those soaring phrases that Barber had so carefully fashioned for the young Price’s deluxe, free-floating instrument. Louis Otey’s well-meant Antony also seemed hard-pressed, as did Neil Rosenshein’s bleaty Caesar Augustus, admittedly a thankless part in both versions of the opera. The most finished vocal work came from Arthur Woodley as Enobarbus, whose moving lament for Antony is ironically more impressive than anything his comrade-in-arms has to sing.

Steven Sloane conducted with energy, skill, and commitment, making the most of Barber’s colorful orchestral score. Perhaps the ACO will now be encouraged to investigate other neglected native operas that deserve a rehearing. Many were done with some success at the Met in the early years of the twentieth century—scores by Howard Hanson, Deems Taylor, Horatio Parker, Walter Damrosch, and Louis Gruenberg, among others—and carefully prepared concert performances would be an ideal way to reassess their merits.

Parsifal has been James Levine’s personal property at the Metropolitan Opera for nearly 25 years, so it seemed high time for an alternate view. This season, Valery Gergiev is on the podium, and while many will miss the leisurely tempos and luminous instrumental sheen that his predecessor conjured up, the Russian conductor sounds far more at home in this score than he did a month ago with Verdi’s Otello. The emotional heat generated by the meeting of Parsifal and Kundry in Act Two apparently appeals to Gergiev more than the spiritual meditations of the outer acts, but on the whole the opera moves and stirs in most of the right ways despite the occasional helter-skelter moments that one has come to expect from this variable, often infuriating musician.

Gurnemanz, that wise old knight of the Holy Grail, can often try even a Parsifal enthusiast’s patience, but René Pape makes the role seem almost too short. When sung by a voice of such textural beauty and expressive range, the long narrations and explications sound as movingly relevant as Wagner intended them to be. Pape’s bass may lack the rich sonority and gravitas provided by the role’s greatest exponents, but this is a gorgeous piece of singing. Plácido Domingo’s vocal options are rapidly dwindling, but Parsifal remains one of them—the low-lying terrain of the part has always appealed to tenors with diminishing top registers. Even as his tone dries out, Domingo continues to sound lyrical and secure in the music, although it’s a shame that he finds so little dramatic substance in the character. A dangerous but appropriately enigmatic she-devil, Violeta Urmana is a vocally commanding Kundry, Falk Struckmann voices Amfortas’s agonies with anguished eloquence, and all the lesser roles are in the best of hands.

What the Met really needs is a new Parsifal. Of all the brainless Disneyland Wagner productions that director Otto Schenk and designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen have dreamed up for the Met over the years, this is by far the worst, with its fake castle columns, tacky shower-curtain drapes, and simpleminded blocking. At least those hilarious pop-up daisies that once dotted the Good Friday meadow are gone, but they’ve been replaced by white splotches that look rather like picnic litter. All in all, an unworthy spectacle for an opera of such depth and complexity.

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Antony and Cleopatra
Opera by Samuel Barber; American Composers Orchestra conducted by Steven Sloane at Carnegie Hall.

Opera by Wagner; conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Metropolitan Opera.

Roman Ruin