Our Critic’s Soliloquy On A Shakespearean Opera By John Adams: ‘Meh’

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Roman general and Egyptian queen: Baritone Gerald Finley and soprano Amina Edris in ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ the John Adams opera given its world premiere by San Francisco Opera. (Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

SAN FRANCISCO — Since he hit the big time as a composer, John Adams has had a knack for being at the right place at the right time. Whether in Los Angeles or San Francisco, his two main bases of operation, if there is an anniversary, a round-numbered milestone, a new music director at his/her first concert, the opening of a new hall, Adams is very often there with something.

It happened again Sept. 10 at the War Memorial Opera House. San Francisco Opera is celebrating its centennial in 2022-23, and Adams, a Bay Area resident since the 1970s, was given the commission to write a new work to launch the season.

Like so many composers before him, Adams turned to Shakespeare for text and inspiration. He read every one of Shakespeare’s plays, and chose Antony and Cleopatra on the strength of its complex fusion of the political and the personal.

The resonances were flying. For the second straight time, Adams had co-opted the title of another opera in the repertory for his own use. His previous opera before Antony, after all, was called Girls of the Golden West after Puccini’s opera — and Antony, it is hard to resist noting, follows Samuel Barber’s opera of the same name, which itself was a commemorative work that opened the new Metropolitan Opera in 1966. Ominously, one might add, for Barber’s opera was an epic flop at the premiere (a recently released broadcast recording of the Met performance tends to confirm this).

Amina Edris as a suitably glamorous Cleopatra; costume design by Constance Hoffman.

Also, Antony is the first theatrical work that Adams has written without his longtime co-conspirator Peter Sellars. That in itself is, as their title character in Nixon in China would say, “News! News! News!” Adams’ new collaborator, director Elkhanah Pulitzer, had transformed Nixon into a more meaningful spectacle in a 2017 production with the Los Angeles Philharmonic by incorporating H.R. Haldeman’s home movies of Nixon’s actual China trip. So, there was the promise of a fresh start.

Yet the results at the War Memorial — always provisional for Adams’ theatrical works, which often undergo extensive revision after the premiere — indicate that for the first time in an often-tumultuous career, Adams has written something that, dare we say, looks and sounds like conventional opera. He is setting a real text (albeit with additions from Virgil, Plutarch, other Shakespeare plays, etc.) rather than a collage of found material or sometimes nebulous poetry. There is a real, easy-to-follow plot to hang onto as the words come shooting back and forth among the singers. There is character development. There are appropriate shifts in the mood and thrust of the music that serve the drama.

But for a composer who was always testing the boundaries of what opera is and coming up with provocative alternate routes, this work is an outlier, one that heads straight for the middle of the road and mostly comes up short of interesting things to say. Some Adams signatures remain — the urge for agitated repetitions, flashes of the jangling cimbalom that have given an extra tang to the orchestrations of some of his works over the last decade, the mischievous streak that evokes the meditative prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold in one of the orchestral interludes in Act I for some reason.

Gerald Finley’s Antony, right, with his lieutenant Enobarbus, sung by bass-baritone Alfred Walker.

Like Barber in his opera, Adams finds his greatest inspiration in Cleopatra’s final speeches before she kills herself (though Adams writes that he purposely didn’t study or listen to Barber’s work). He settles into relaxed, sustained, and for the first time, emotionally moving territory as Cleopatra is about to sing Shakespeare’s words “Give me my robe” — and with the emergence of scampering notes underpinning the singing, Adams finally wins us over. Too late, for you have to wade through nearly two-and-three-quarters hours (with an intermission break) of music that is mostly not first-rate Adams in order to get there.

The libretto is considerably pared down from the Shakespeare — which is fair enough — eliminating scenes, characters, and concentrating primarily on Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and the eventual Roman conqueror, Octavian (here referred to by his last name Caesar). To this, in Act I, Pulitzer adds the metaphor of Hollywood toward the end of the silent film era, projecting wheezy old black-and-white films of crowd scenes, the sand dunes of Egypt, Roman ruins, and other things onto a set of black walls that fold and assume different shapes.

The idea seems to be to merge the glamour of that era with the glamour that history, Hollywood, and Shakespeare have imposed upon the romance of Antony and Cleopatra. Indeed, there is no difference between the paparazzi snapping away in the old newsreels circa 1930 and the real-time paparazzi onstage photographing the celebrity monarch and warrior. Perhaps due to the more intimate turn of the plot, the Hollywood metaphor seems to disappear from the concept in the lengthy Act II. The production is mostly very dark and subdued, with a handful of brilliant points of light like the golden vision of Cleopatra in Hollywood toward the end of Act I and the starry, starry night of Act II. The confusion of war is aptly reflected in the music accompanying the opera’s sole battle scene.

Caesar (tenor Paul Appleby) and chorus in a scene signaling the rise of the Roman Empire.

In the most obvious political scene of the opera, Adams and Pulitzer made significant room for a long speech by Caesar in Act II proclaiming the triumph of the Roman “race” over the known world, with the screen tracking his face in larger-than-life black and white. I suppose this was a composite figure — with Mussolini probably the most prominent component — warning us of similar authoritarian threats in today’s world. In any event, it got the first spontaneous ovation of the night.

Soprano Amina Edris, who stepped in for Julia Bullock when the latter had to cancel due to her pregnancy, was the whole package as Cleopatra with a fine, even voice, great sex appeal, the dignity and guile of a born monarch, flashes of temper — and to top it off, she happens to be Egyptian! Baritone Gerald Finley, also in excellent voice on opening night, caught the essence of Antony the aging warrior and languid Romeo.

Tenor Paul Appleby’s Caesar was a CEO at his desk — or perhaps a mogul of old Hollywood — negotiating a high tenor part that suggested a ruthless, focused, “scarce-bearded” young man on the rise. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong accurately portrayed a frumpily dressed Octavia (Caesar’s sister) who received drab music from Adams to match, and bass-baritone Alfred Walker had some powerful passages as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus. All of the principal singers wore body microphones, as is usual for Adams, but the sound enhancement was so subtle that it was hardly noticeable.

SF Opera music director Eun Sun Kim had the orchestra sounding in prime form on opening night. Indeed, the orchestra sounds better than ever these days in War Memorial, with a firmer bass and greater projection to the orchestral level that I suspect is due to the recent installation of new seats that enhance acoustics.

Make no mistake, Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra is by no means the disaster that Barber’s was at the premiere. But neither is it an absolute triumph. It’s somewhere between — or as an audience member said to me at intermission, “so-so.” That sounds about right for now until — or if — a revised version appears.

Performances continue until Oct. 5, and a live stream of the 2 p.m. (PT) Sept. 18 performance will be available on that day and for limited on-demand viewing for 48 hours beginning Sep. 19. For tickets and information, go here.