Notes (2003/04/06)

Sunday, April 6, 2003 at 3pm
“Antony and Cleopatra”

Antony and Cleopatra, Op. 40
Samuel Barber
Born: March 10, 1910 in West Chester, PA
Died: January 23, 1981 in New York, NY

The commission that was one of the greatest tributes to Barber’s whole career turned out, ironically, to be his nemesis. Antony and Cleopatra, written for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House on 16 September 1966, was the monumental misfortune of Barber’s career. In the words of one German publication, “everyone in the world . . . heard this opera was not a success.”‘ The immediate failure of the premiere was accentuated by a press that was overly attentive to the spectacular elements of the new opera house and celebrity watching and that offered a great deal of comment by people who had not enough professional expertise to evaluate music at all. The inflated Zeffirelli production, with its complicated and problematic paraphernalia, eclipsed for the most part any serious evaluation of the music.

Although the score contains some of the most beautiful of Barber’s music, the initial performances were–in the composer’s word-“strangled by a costly, confusing, overloaded production that did not even function.” Most of the criticism leveled at the opera as “gaudy,” “overdressed,” and “overproduced” seems directed toward Franco Zeffirelli, who wrote the libretto, directed and staged the opera, and designed the sets and costumes. This does not explain, however, why Barber—usually so decisive about aesthetic principles—seemed to abdicate his artistic assertiveness in this instance. A study of the progress of Antony and Cleopatra, from the forging of the libretto to its production, points to the wide chasm between Barber’s and Zeffirelli’s concepts of the opera as a major factor in the overwhelming failure in 1966. Fair appraisal of the music was not completely resolved until the opera was revised with the help of Menotti in 1975.

Almost immediately after the completion of Vanessa, Metropolitan Opera Director Rudolf Bing began pressing Barber for another opera. The 1966-67 season of the Metropolitan Opera would be the fruition of the nearly fifty years of looking for a new home for the opera. The repertory for the first season of the $45.7 million opera house at Lincoln Center had been discussed many years in advance of its opening. The eventual choice of Barber to write an opera for the inauguration of the new Metropolitan Opera house seemed inevitable: as an American composer whose metier was song as well as orchestral music, his tonal and lyrical music was the kind favored by the conservative Met audiences; moreover, he had already proven himself as a composer of opera with the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Vanessa.

Although as early as 1959 Barber had tentatively agreed to write something for the first season of the new opera house, he had not chosen a libretto, nor was he even ready to commit himself to another major opera so soon after Vanessa. The Metropolitan Opera suggested Moby Dick as a possibility, and there is evidence that Barber gave more than a fleeting consideration to the subject even though he ultimately rejected the idea, reflecting later that “an opera that had a lot of whales and water, but no soprano, had a doubtful future.” A transcription of passages from Melville’s novel appear untitled in one of the composer’s notebooks.

“The Met tells me I can have any poet in the world, Auden, Thomas–anyone, but none seems right for me,” he complained to his friends. The only thing he had decided upon for certain was that whatever opera he wrote would be for Leontyne Price; Since her debut with the Metropolitan in 1961 she had achieved the reputation of having one of the richest, most sensuous voices in the Metropolitan Opera. By singing in Barber’s opera, she would make history by opening the new house.

Antony and Cleopatra was, in fact, Barber’s favorite Shakespearean play, and many critics consider it to contain some of the bard’s richest and most poetic language. But a musical setting of Antony presented-as Andrew Porter was to say in a review of the revised version”a triple hurdle,” for historically the odds were against success.” First, of all the opera librettos using Shakespeare word for word, only one–A Midsummer Night’s Dream had ever been successful; second, none of the operas based on the Roman tragedies had been successful at all; and third, misfortune had usually attended large new works premiered in untried opera houses or before audiences attracted as much by the event as by the music.

The challenge of setting Shakespeare’s words-which are so full of meaning that their significance cannot be rapidly absorbed by listeners, most of whom would be illequipped to handle Elizabethan English–was admittedly something of a problem for Barber, whose youthful exposure to the English singing tradition was that of “distorted vowels and a highflown pseudo-Elizabethan vocabulary.” But ultimately, Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter seemed to him “surprisingly free and pliable.

A manuscript typescript of the libretto in its early stages contains Barber’s handwritten notes that suggest he thought Shakespeare was concerned with “order vs. life fulfillment” in Antony and Cleopatra; Cleopatra is transformed into an absolute image, Barber wrote, a principal of life in destruction&ldots;a coincidence of contraries, all for love and the world; Antony’s greatness is to have been Cleopatra’s lover.”

In the spring of 1964 Barber had already begun to write his own libretto for Antony when he learned at second hand that Bing had asked Franco Zeffirelli to become a partner in the collaboration. From the start of the project, Zeffirelli’s imagination was captured by the potential for extravaganza that the facilities of the new house presented. So enthusiastic was he about directing the opera for the opening of the new house that he went to New York to watch construction of the building so he would be utterly familiar with the ‘elaborate stage equipment that was being installed under the direction of Herman Krawitz. But by July Barber still had not received text from his librettist-director, who had left for Rome so hurriedly that he had not even signed a contract. Determined to obtain a libretto by the end of the summer and not wanting to repeat the endless wait he had experienced with Menotti nor to jeopardize fulfillment of the commission, he followed Zeffirelli to Italy, settling himself in Tuscany near his librettist’s villa to press him for a text. Each day for two weeks Zeffirelli traveled the two miles to Barber’s house, where they worked with the singleminded purpose of fashioning the libretto.

Regarding it a challenge to sustain dramatic continuity through the sequence of so many short scenes, Zeffirelli and Barber reduced Shakespeare’s play of forty-two scenes in five acts to a libretto of sixteen scenes in three acts. Fourteen characters were eliminated, and the play’s different geographical locations were reduced to two–Rome and Egypt (plus one scene aboard a Roman galley, which was omitted in the revised version). The text consists entirely of Shakespeare’s words. It was honed down by rearranging and cutting materialomitting entire scenes, eliminating connecting dialogues between important speeches, and pruning lines within speeches.

At the end of summer 1964, Barber dug in to the task of composing the music. Imposing upon himself a rigorous work routine that precluded virtually all social engagements, he took telephone calls only early in the morning or at lunch time, visitors were discouraged, and mail went unanswered. One of the few excursions he allowed himself was a monthly visit to West Chester to see his ailing mother.

The requirements of characterizations govern the style of the vocal music: leaping vocal lines are assigned to the Romans in scenes on the battlefield or in the senate. Although the most defined lyrical music is tailored to Price’s voice, much of the music for Cleopatra in the original version called for a throaty parlando style, what the singer referred to as her “Carmen voice, the dusky quality of the low voice.” In act 3, however, where Cleopatra is present almost the entire time, the music is consistently lyrical and most representative of the melodic style usually associated with Barber. Since the resolution of the drama occurs here as well, it is in this act that the strength of the opera lies. Beginning with the last two scenes of act 2 (Enobarbus’s aria “I am alone the villain of the earth” and Antony’s suicide) and through the end of act 3 (Antony’s death and Cleopatra’s suicide), the singing dominates.

Geographical locations are differentiated by the orchestral music also: angular leaps and irregular rhythms suggest brashness for the “Roman” music; syncopations characterize the argument between Antony and Caesar in act 2; in contrast, the music for the Egyptian scenes and for Cleopatra is marked by sinuous melodies, opulent, luminescent harmonies, and exotic timbres. Barber claimed that he took his musical cues from Shakespeare, who created “a counterpoint between the language and rhythms of Rome and the more fluid and imagistic language and rhythms of Egypt.”

In preparation for her role as Cleopatra, Price put herself in almost complete isolation for a year, accepting as few singing engagements as possible. She read every book she could find, including Plutarch, on Cleopatra, “the strongest character I have played to date,” Price said, “and the most provocative.” To facilitate proper pronunciation, she went through the whole play with the British actress Irene Worth and listened to a recording of it; for other members of the cast, the Metropolitan brought in Philip Burton, another leading British stage figure, to clarify and correct Americanisms. To further prepare her voice for the role, Price returned to Florence Kimball, her vocal coach of many years.

Justino Diaz, the twenty-six-year-old Puerto Rican-born bass who would play Antony, was picked by Barber in 1965 for the role, and the composer lowered and adjusted what had been originally conceived as a high baritone role to suit the singer’s lower voice. For Diaz, Antony’s music seemed to express “the whole gamut of emotional possibilities…; moody, rather than very dramatic&ldots; not very far out by modern standards not like Wozzeck by any means…; romantic music.” Other members of the cast included Ezio Flagello as Antony’s friend Enobarbus; Jess Thomas as Caesar; Rosalind Elias as Cleopatra’s attendant Charmian; and Mary Ellen Pracht as Octavia, Caesar’s sister and Antony’s wife.

By the time Zeffirelli began rehearsals of Antony and Cleopatra, he found himself beset with crises. Bing had scheduled only twenty-five days of rehearsal for the opera since the stage had to be shared with preparations for other operas in rehearsal; Zeffirelli had hoped for twenty days to rehearse the Actium battle scene alone. In addition, up to the last rehearsal the orchestra, which had been working for two and a half years without a contract, was threatening to strike, having agreed only to play for the opening night of the new opera house.

Zeffirelli designed symbolic sets for Antony and Cleopatra: a geometric fusion of metal, plastic, and wood, but no canvas. The colors were steel, white, crystal blue. The form central to the overall design was the pyramid. A huge sphinx had been erected for the Egyptian scene, the figure, turning awesomely one way or the other, looming high over the stage. A naval battle scene was played out by toys, seen in the distance.

Determined to design for the full capacity of the luxurious space of the new stage, which was six times as large as that of the old Met, Zeffirelli had devised a barge scene, for example, that stretched back 146 feet deep from the footlights. A scaffolding of transverse and vertical metal tubing was suspended over the Roman senate scenes, but because there was no backdrop at the first performance, singers’ voices were diffused in all directions rather than beamed toward the audience, thus making them difficult to understand The eighteenth-century practice of changing scenes in view of the audience was planned to be accomplished by lights and sliding mechanisms, including a fifty-seven-foot turntable.

The night of the opening on 16 September saw an audience of 3800, while 3,000 onlookers outside of the house gaped at arriving celebrities, among whom were President Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife and her guests Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines, and his wife; Governor and Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller; and a host of foreign ministers, chancellors, ambassadors, and other dignitaries representing major nations of the world.

Everything that could have gone wrong mechanically did. Lighting cues misfired, causing Cleopatra to make her entrance on a pitchblack stage. The revolving stage, around which Zeffirelli had designed the whole production, had gone out of order one week before the performance and had to be manually revolved by a stage crew dressed in costume.

The morning after the premiere of Antony and Cleopatra, Barber sailed for Europe on the SS Constitution. Although his disappearance to Italy was interpreted by his friends, publisher, and the press as a flight made out of disgust and in disgrace, it was in fact neither, for even before the premiere he had planned an extended vacation in Bolzano after the opening. Interviewed in 1971, he said, “When I left I had no idea of the enormity of the failure. It was not until I arrived when I began to get letters from friends, letters of condolence, full of pity” that he fully absorbed what had happened.’ This public statement is somewhat ingenuous, for Katharine Fryer’s diary suggests otherwise; after the problematic dress rehearsal he despaired, “I’m not going to write any more music–I’m through.”

Prompted by a conviction that, in spite of the vitriolic reviews, the opera contained some of his best work, Barber directed his energies intermittently over the next decade toward salvaging the opera. Some of the revisions he made suggest he believed there was a degree of veracity in the critical opinions of the first performances in 1966. The earliest reworking, in 1968, was of what had been considered the two best scenes in the opera, Cleopatra’s arias in act 1 and act 3, “Give me some music” and her suicide monologue, “Give me my robe.” By providing an introduction and an interlude that binds the arias together, Barber created a concert scene, approximately sixteen minutes in duration, that was performed for the first time by Ella Lee and the National Symphony Orchestra under Howard Mitchell at the Fourth Inter-American Music Festival on 13 June 1968 in Columbia, Maryland.

In 1972, long before any new production was in view, Barber Menotti began talking about revising Antony and Cleopatra. In September 1973 Barber and Menotti listened to tapes of the opera, Menotti taking notes, They decided what to cut, what to add, and where new scenes were needed. Two years passed before the opera was ready in its new version. In the winter of 1974 Peter Mennin, president of the Juilliard School, asked if the opera could be produced at the school’s American Opera Center during the following season. Four performances of the revised version were given by the American Opera Center at the juilliard School in February 1975, staged by Menotti and conducted by James Conlon, with Esther Hinds as Cleopatra, a role she sang again in the 1983 Spoleto Festival performances in Italy and Charleston, South Carolina. Zeffirelli’s name was discreetly dropped from the title, and, under the guidance of Menotti, the libretto was completely transformed.

Alterations were addressed to the shortcomings of Zeffirelli’s libretto and overblown production, a style that Menotti believed was counter to Barber’s fundamental personality: ” In a certain way, part of the trouble was that Zeffirelli…did not understand Sam’s character at all and he filled the libretto with fanfares and big scenes and so on. Sam’s always been a very intimate and introverted composer and all that was completely out of style with him.”

For the revision, Barber said he “tried to tighten up the two basic elements of the opera, the political and the amorous&ldots; in general, giving more space to the lovers. In other words, more Egypt and less Rome.” He cut in half the length of the opening chorus, lengthened the ensuing duet between Cleopatra and Antony, and eliminated the drunken orgy aboard the Roman galley–“all that Rotary Club talk by the Romans.”

Menotti’s version shuns elements of grand opera spectacle in favor of a more intimate production: the chorus, as in Greek tragedy, was placed on the two sides of the stage; ballet–the extended “Stick Dance”–was omitted in the 1975 version almost completely; and there are fewer alternations of scenes between Rome and Egypt in act 1. The Juilliard production eliminated, also, camels, goats, horses, and pyramids and, instead of using abstract sculpted scenery, set the opera in a simpler realistic environment evocative of Egypt.

The opera, now in three acts and fourteen scenes, is an hour shorter than the original version. It has six fewer characters; Octavia no longer has a singing part, Caesar’s role is considerably diminished, and a number of minor Roman characters are omitted. In general, there is greater continuity of action and stronger dramatic direction: the lovers are thrown into sharper focus and the importance of the world at large is diminished. Barber accomplished this by consolidating, rearranging, and cutting material.

Zeffirelli’s libretto for the original version of Antony and Cleopatra had provided Barber only rare opportunities for what Menotti called lyric meditation. There were no love scenes allowing for the obligatory lovers’ duet; Cleopatra’s dramatic recitative beginning “Give me some music,” culminating in “my man of men” although spine-chilling in its immediate effect had been interrupted before its development. Cleopatra’s lament over her lost lover in the last act was one of the few passages in the 1966 version Barber had composed with the full lyrical magnitude that typifies his style. In contrast, the new version benefits from expansion and addition of love music. “Give me some music” is now a full-fledged aria; included also is the concert piece close of Cleopatra’s suicide monologue, “Give me my robe,” Barber’s earliest reworked music from the opera. The most effective addition is the luxurious and tender but erotic love duet in act 2., “Oh take, oh take those lips away,” from Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Bloody Brother(1616), which Barber preferred to the more famous one-stanza version in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It is interesting to note, however, especially in light of the general opinion that the original version of Antony would be improved by the addition of more lyrical music, that Porter found the most “striking scenes” in the revised production to be the two that “did not depend on full-throated lyricism”: the soldier’s conversation during the mysterious “music i’ the air,” and the last conversation of Antony and Eros, over a kettledrum ostinato.

The orchestral music, which had been acknowledged as one of the strongest features of the original version, where left intact was not revised, although sometimes it was relocated; for example, the borrowing of the brooding marchlike material from the withdrawn Second Symphony remains in the new version, but as the music for Caesar’s entrance to the Roman senate.

The revised Antony and Cleopatra–more focused dramatically, more developed musically, and with staging more sensitive to Barber’s musical style offered an opportunity to test whether the opera could critically hold its own apart from its original Zeffirelli production. Apparently it succeeded in going, as one critic suggested, “a long way toward escaping entirely from the shadow of the dismal premiere…with flashes of eloquence and power.”

In spite of improvements, Antony and Cleopatra has been slow to enter the repertoire of major opera houses. The lack of subsequent performances may have been in part a reflection of a growing interest in “new music” of widely divergent musical techniques and languages, music with anti-Romantic and antiexpressionist tendencies that are the antithesis of Barber’s musical style. Concurrently, from about 1963 to 1970 there was also a decline in the number of Barber’s orchestral works on concert programs of American symphony orchestras. Next to Carter, Boulez, Penderecki, Ligeti, and minimalist composers, whose music gained in popularity after 1960, Barber’s music could conceivably have been perceived as reactionary and ultraconservative.

In 1980 a concert version of Antony and Cleopatra was performed in Paris at the Theatres des Champs-Elysees, with Radio-France conducted by JeanPierre Marty. Barber, ill with cancer, was unable to attend. Menotti, who had seen the Paris production, brought a tape of the opera to Barber’s room at University Hospital; a poster announcing the opera was pinned on the wall near his bed.

In 1983, two years after Barber’s death, Antony and Cleopatra was produced as a fully staged opera at the Spoleto Festivals in Charleston and Italy. Four performances taped during the festivals were used for the first full-length recording of the opera. Two makeup sessions of the orchestral interludes were conducted in order to eliminate stage and audience noise and allow for the restoration of some of Barber’s original orchestration. The album won the 1984 Grammy Award in the category of “Best New Classical Compositions” and was chosen by the editors of Opera News as one of the best recordings of the year. the Lyric Opera of Chicago included Antony and Cleopatra in its 1991-92 season, the first production of the opera in a major house since its premiere.

In Italy, appropriately, Antony and Cleopatra at last found its rightful appreciation and a serious critical appraisal. Much was credited to “the perfect care for the production” exercised by Menotti, who “poured all the skill and musical precision of his exceptional talents as a director, thus allowing the succession of scenes to flow smoothly, and to have an expressiveness which… always gave…respect for the music in every respect.”

Further changes had been made since the Juilliard production. The chorus, now dressed in black street clothes, was removed from the stage entirely and placed on the two sides of the orchestra pit, diminishing the appearance of multitudes and eliminating a crowded stage yet preserving the musical presence of the singers. It was suggested that by drawing attention entirely to the protagonists and their internal romantic tensions and separating them from the “masses,” Menotti was, in a certain sense, “the reinventor of the opera.”

For the changes of scene, only a small number of elements were used, arranged in a very “movable” order–not as symbolic representations, however, which might have worked against the realism of the music obtaining, in one critic’s words, “a figurative precision that heightened the score and ‘framed’ it wonderfully.” The apparition of Cleopatra on a ship as a kind of sumptuous dream, the battle depicted with a few touches, and the final death scene were considered to be “worthy of entering into the legends of melodramatic productions.”

The critical reviews of the Spoleto production give much attention to the musical strengths of the opera. First, there was uniform appreciation of Barber as a master of the orchestra-“his particular taste for the play of timbres,” his treatment of individual instruments with an “exquisite subtlety of relief,” and his ability to handle large blocks of sound that suddenly dissolve into chamber music to great dramatic effect. (the kettledrums and flute passage was praised as a “living token of Barber’s musical imagination”). “One will understand,” wrote the music critic Teodoro Celli about these passages, “how right it was that this opera be produced in Italy.” 

One of the strongest attributes to the opera was considered to be the music for the chorus–“often treated like a second orchestra”–which surrounded the drama as a “strongly suggestive vocal ribwork,” and where twentieth-century models “very distant from each other like Pizzetti and Stravinsky” are happily united Barber’s vocal writing, acknowledged Cavallotti, offers a richness of design that in a masterful way clarifies the inner movements of emotional confusion.

While the Italian press found the roots of Barber’s stylistic recollections in Puccini’s Turandot, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and even Franz Lehar’s Land of Smiles, they still recognized his originality. In fact, his ability to bring together techniques, languages, and emotions quite dissimilar–to “savor” tradition and yet “not bum his bridges with the linguistic experiments of his own time”–was seen as a strength and, moreover, as a uniquely American asset. It was pointed out that where European composers are weighed down by a tradition “whose glory often turns into a Procrustean bed,” blocking imagination and leading to a war between the romantic heritage and the avant garde, American music, on the other hand, is not afraid of being trapped in spontaneity of Romantic expression; “in the direct transmission of the heart into the word, it sings in an open manner.” In this respect Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra is exemplary:

“The work of the American composer is a perfectly crafted melodrama, following the canonical rules–the succession of love and death, the music that is molded by it and comments on it in its particular expressive vein, the great orchestra that rises from it, the vocal quality that displays itself luminously in spacious and solemn arches. The opera proceeds…; to magnetize the hearer and to involve him in the tremor of a lyric pathos.”

It is promising that the Lyric Opera of Chicago included Antony and Cleopatra in its 1991-92 season, the first production of the opera in a major house since its premiere. Directed by Elijah Moshinsky, with Catherine Malfitano and Richard Cowen in the title roles, the three acts of the 1967 score were reorganized into two, with an intermission following the love duet (“Oh take, oh take those lips away”). Thus the pause occurred at the height of romantic tension, midway through the opera, allowing the denouement–beginning with Enobarbus’s major aria to proceed without interruption to the end of the opera. The Chicago company met the challenge of rapid scene changes with a permanent backdrop of reflecting panels on which images of Rome and Alexandria were projected for each location. The Spoleto and Chicago performances give hope thatAntony and Cleopatra, an opera that has languished too long in the shadow of prejudicial early reviews, may find a permanent place in the repertoire of major companies.

Excerpted from Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music, by Barbara B. Heyman, 1992, Oxford University Press. Used with permission.