Barber’s Egyptian Queen, Awakened From Time’s Crypt

Reinforcing the idea that Barber’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is ripe for a revival, soprano Sally Matthews and conductor Juanjo Mena presented two scenes from the opera with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra ranks among the most ill-fated operas of the 20th century. Created to celebrate the opening of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966, the work collapsed under the weight of the expectations surrounding it and an over-sized production by director Franco Zeffirelli that arguably suffocated it. “Almost everything about the evening, artistically speaking, failed in total impact,” wrote music critic Harold Schonberg in the New York Times.

Barber and his partner, Gian-Carlo Menotti, a major composer in his own right and the librettist of Barber’s first opera, Vanessa, created a revised version that premiered at the Juilliard American Opera Center in 1975. A few other companies have performed the work since, including Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1991, but it largely remains an obscurity. That said, some musicologists believe it is ripe for a revival, and the first of three performances of Two Scenes from Antony and Cleopatra on Nov. 21 by guest conductor Juanjo Mena and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strongly reinforced that view.

Samuel Barber (Carl Van Vechten photo, Library of Congress)

By the time the opera debuted, Barber was being branded as passé because of his fondness for European Romanticism and his refusal to subscribe to serialism and the academic formalism that dominated composition at the time. But such biases have largely fallen away in a 21st-century musical scene with intersecting and overlapping styles of all kinds, and we are able to hear this music with more open ears. Barber’s keen ability to weave a melody and conjure a mood comes flooding through even in these relatively short excerpts, which last a little more than 15 minutes combined.

The composer’s short lead-in to the first of the two arias immediately and evocatively sets the scene, thrusting the listener into the tumult of the story of love and war and offering hints of harmonies and rhythms that suggest the ancient Middle East. Then enters Cleopatra (in this case, British soprano Sally Matthews, making her Chicago Symphony debut), who longs for the departed Antony in the first scene and subsequently prepares to poison herself in the second and join Antony, who has stabbed himself to death. Not soaring arias in the Verdian sense, these are more straightforward, declarative, turned-in expressions that are forceful and affecting in their way.

According to the program notes, Barber excerpted the two scenes from the score and arranged them for concert performance in 1968. Mena and Matthews presented these operatic excerpts in 2018 as part of the Proms, a popular summer music festival in London, with the BBC Philharmonic. Portraying Cleopatra – a role originally sung by Leontyne Price, see historic footage below – Matthews offered a probing, introspective performance that powerfully conveyed the Egyptian queen’s inner turmoil, dignified nobility, and unwavering love for Antony. Three times in the two arias, including the final stanza, Cleopatra exclaims her feelings for her lover, calling out “My man of men!” Matthews delivered the words with convincing, full-voiced fervor and conviction. Every bit as spellbinding as the vocal writing is Barber’s vivid orchestral music, which sets up the scenes and brilliantly fills out and provides context to the two arias.

About as far away as can be from Antony and Cleopatra on the recognition meter was the ever-popular work featured on the second half – Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The suite holds special significance for the Chicago Symphony, which presented the American premiere on Dec. 31, 1920, with then-music director Frederick Stock. It is easy to take an orchestral staple like this one for granted, but Mena made sure that didn’t happen, demonstrating an obvious affinity for the music, by far the composer’s best-known work.

It is also easy with this piece to succumb to excess, a trap Mena avoided with a structured, disciplined interpretation that carefully balanced its heft and intimacy and conveyed the work’s thrilling kaleidoscope of emotions. He opened with a pulsating, martial take on the ominous first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” rendering the giant swells, dramatically reinforced by the organ, in dizzying fashion. That section was handsomely offset by an airy, gentle approach to the second movement, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” which began with a plaintive solo by principal horn David Cooper.

Each of the succeeding five movements had its own appeal, from the expansive grandeur of the fifth to the crazy, off-kilter sensibility of the dance-like sixth movement. There was much to admire along the way, like the refined celesta playing by Pei-yeh Tsai, a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. The instrument helped evoke the celestial atmosphere of the second movement and then took on an unexpectedly lighter, more playful role in the scampering, scherzo-like third movement.

The final movement ends memorably with repeated, wordless vocalizations by an offstage female chorus, in this case 45 members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The Planets plays to one of the most famous strengths of the Chicago Symphony — its formidable brass section, with augmentations here that included two extra French horns and the addition of a tenor tuba (a kind of junior version of the standard bass tuba) played by trombonist Michael Mulcahy.

Orbiting in full force for ‘The Planets,’ the formidable French horns of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Opening the evening was the Chicago premiere of Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, the most frequently performed composition by James Lee III, a 44-year-old composer who teaches at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The work, which was debuted in October 2011 by the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami Beach, Fla., is hardly revolutionary in its musical language but it packs quite a quite a punch into its 11 minutes. It draws inspiration from both the Old and New Testaments, with Lee’s program notes spelling out the religious references that run through the work’s seven sections.

Composer James Lee III takes a bow after ‘Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula,’ which is rich in shimmering, atmospheric effects.

Mena, who led the Cincinnati Symphony’s first performances of the piece in 2012, seemed right at home in this propulsive, highly rhythmic composition powered by miramba, xylophone, and vibraphone, sometimes all playing at once. Brass fanfares and percussion bursts contrast with hovering, shimmering moments in the strings and delicate, atmospheric effects, like one apparently involving a mallet with a Super Ball attached to it being stroked along the surface of a thundersheet. Mena found the full drama in these fast-changing moods, textures, and tempi, and made sure the piece was what it clearly can be: a darn good ride.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.