‘Antony And Cleopatra’ Second Time Around: Love’s More Wonderful

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Gerald Finley and Julia Bullock played the title roles in John Adams’ ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. (Photos by David Ruano)

BARCELONA — Though this is a city known for its proud celebration of culture, it still came as a delightful surprise to be greeted at the Barcelona-El Prat Airport by posters announcing the Gran Teatre del Liceu production of John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra.

Promising “the love story that redefined the world” and competing with signage for baggage claim and public transport, the ads were hard to miss. Similar banners popped up across the metro system as well as up and down Las Ramblas — the lively, tree-lined pedestrian zone in Barcelona’s historic center where the opera house (seating around 2,300) is located.

The Liceu landed the European premiere of Adams’ opera, first unveiled in 2022 as the opening production of San Francisco Opera’s centenary season. The third co-commissioning company, the Metropolitan Opera, will give the New York/East Coast premiere in 2025. Antony and Cleopatra is based on one of the most complex and poetically luxurious of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but how long it will take to be staged in the U.K. remains to be seen.

Alfred Walker was especially strong as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus.

Adams confounded many in the opera world, and even some longtime fans, when Antony and Cleopatra was first presented in September 2022 in the War Memorial Opera House. The absence of Peter Sellars, the longtime artistic partner who had been involved in all of his works for the stage since Adams began writing operas, marked a much-noted departure from his usual pattern. That also meant a departure from the collage principle Sellars had employed in his librettos for Adams (starting with El Niño), which Sellars compiled by juxtaposing primary sources and “found material.”

Adams himself adapted his libretto directly from Shakespeare’s tragedy (dating from around 1606). He crafted a workable libretto by condensing its extensive cast and ancient world-encircling scenography to a dozen named characters and a few emblematic locations. It’s interesting to note that Sellars’ collage process nevertheless still has a modest presence: Adams interweaves a few excerpts from other plays by Shakespeare (curiously, a humorous bit from The Taming of the Shrew makes it into the opening depiction of the soused Antony) and a lengthy passage from Virgil’s Aeneid for one of Octavian’s key scenes (the libretto refers to him simply as “Caesar”).

The composer’s reliance on the backbone of Shakespeare’s drama for his operatic narrative results in another significant shift from Adams’ previous practice. Even though there are no (to these ears) discernible musical echoes of Pelléas et Mélisande, Adams took Debussy as a model for his approach to A&C as a “sung play.” More than in any other of his works, the sheer volume of text at hand — even in the pared-down libretto — inclines toward a predominantly parlando treatment. The dramaturgy itself is relatively linear, moving from one plot point to the next, in contrast to the elusive juxtapositions and pageant-like scenes that convey the story elsewhere in Adams.

Elizabeth DeShong played Octavian’s sister Octavia and Antony’s wife.

Several critics who covered the world premiere in San Francisco expressed disappointment in what they deemed as A&C’s adherence to tropes of “conventional” opera. But Adams’ avoidance of standard structures like stand-alone arias and duets — and, for that matter, of moments more likely to have an immediate audience appeal — registered as even more unusual and uncompromising in the opera’s Barcelona incarnation.

In fact, aside from some relatively minor revisions in the score, Antony and Cleopatra at the Liceu differed in two crucial ways from the work that premiered in San Francisco. First was the incandescent interpretation of Cleopatra by the soprano Julia Bullock, for whom Adams had specifically written the role. (Bullock withdrew from the San Francisco engagement owing to pregnancy.)

The second major change was Adams’ own presence in the pit. In combination, these two factors resulted in an operatic translation of Shakespeare’s play that had much greater intensity overall than the experience I recall from the opera’s first staging.

Adams dispenses with some of the building blocks familiar from his other stage works — above all, the pillar-like choruses that anchor us in the story, establishing atmosphere and momentum. A&C does allot the chorus an important role — sung with fervor, albeit rhythmic imprecision, by the Liceu ensemble — but one that is limited to two turning points in the opera: in the action-packed scene depicting the Battle of Actium at the climax of the first act and in a non-Shakespearean scene foreshadowing Octavian/Caesar’s transformation into Emperor Augustus that is interpolated into the second act, where the chorus appears as a terrifying manifestation of mob psychology.

A scene from the Barcelona production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

The musical language of A&C unfolds through elliptical changes of texture and weight that need to be articulated with a dual focus on the precise moment happening onstage and the larger dramatic arc. One example that stood out at the Liceu was the tense scene of Antony’s reunion with Caesar when he is summoned back to Rome. The sea change in Antony’s demeanor when he contemplates the prospect of marrying Caesar’s sister Octavia, conveyed by a shift in the orchestra from nervous rhythmic energy to broad, sustained chords, was revelatory. It clarified how Antony has sought in vain to reconcile the immense contrast in world views and values between Rome and Egypt.

Balancing the multiple layers of A&C is an exceptionally challenging task for the conductor. Eun Sun Kim’s premiere performance of this difficult score at San Francisco Opera had much to admire but tended to smooth over its edges. Adams drew a passionate but precise account from the excellent Liceu orchestra, whose eager brass and percussion brought home the violent backdrop against which this love story plays out. The score’s abundant word painting and uniquely tinted orchestration were especially vivid: slippery, sinuous woodwind lines, brassily aggressive flourishes of Roman militarism, cimbalom and tuned percussion that evoked a distant antiquity.

Paul Appleby as Octavian and Gerald Finley as Antony

The cumulative sense of suspense with which Adams shaped the first act — something that seemed particularly lacking at the premiere — paved the way for the considerable transformation of musical and dramatic focus in act two. The second act had seemed almost like a sequel or even a different opera in San Francisco. Here — and above all in Bullock’s performance — it called to mind a vast, concluding Adagio in which the unstoppable gears of history are superseded by myth.

Taking Bullock’s place in San Francisco, the soprano Amina Edris made a remarkable impression as Cleopatra. But to experience the artist around whose particular gifts Adams created the role gave A&C a new dimension. Bullock’s unwavering intensity was theatrically and musically thrilling, reflecting the heroine’s “infinite variety” in myriad ways.

She boiled with over-the-top outrage at Antony’s betrayal but convincingly showed the dread that took hold after the defeat at Actium, which ultimately found resolution in her extensive and transportive love-death. Bullock confidently embraced the vocal part’s extreme range — from low F-sharp to high C — at moments fearlessly erupting from controlled pitches into screams of frustration.

Julia Bulllock as Cleopatra and Gerald Finley as Antony

Bullock’s impact was magnified by her powerful chemistry of love-hate with Gerald Finley, who reprised the role of Antony. Finley brought out the character’s fateful combination of seasoned experience and still-lingering, youthful ambition. Far from a story of transcendent love à la Tristan and Isolde, some of the opera’s most memorable moments involve the negative reactions triggered by Antony and Cleopatra. Adams allows for only one love duet proper (tellingly, on the eve of battle).

Finley was especially moving in Antony’s rare turns toward introspection in the second act. It is in their scenes of isolation, as the music emphasizes, that the lovers confront their respective moments of truth.

Other principals returning to their roles included the tenor Paul Appleby as Octavian, stentorian and laser-focused as a dictator in the making with a component of incel energy; Elizabeth DeShong as his sister Octavia and Antony’s wife, humiliated in her task of mediating between the men (though she sang beautifully, the role felt strangely more subdued the second time around); and Alfred Walker in an especially strong performance as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus. Newcomer Äneas Humm brought a chilling vibe to Caesar’s sycophant Agrippa. Adriana Bignani Lesca (Charmian) and Marta Infante (Iras), also new to their roles, added texture to the depiction of Cleopatra’s world and demonstrated, through their loyalty, another aspect of love that plays a major part in Antony and Cleopatra.

Gerald Finley created the role of Antony in the 2022 San Francisco Opera premiere, while Julia Bullock, who missed that production due to pregnancy, finally performed Cleopatra in Barcelona.

The production was essentially the same as the one presented in San Francisco. Elkhanah Pulitzer again directed with a keen understanding of Adams’ complex overlay of myth, history, and contemporary commentary. Her design team (sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Constance Hoffman, projections by Bill Morrison, and lighting by David Finn) implemented an elegantly streamlined, Art Deco-tinged vocabulary that was able to move effortlessly between Egypt and Rome, from the naval disaster (for Antony) at Actium to the private spaces in which the lovers engage in their own tempestuous battles — and ultimately accept their deaths.

The production also leapt across eras, linking iconography and propaganda from the ancient world with the self-conscious cultivation of image in Hollywood’s Golden Age and an earlier stage of mass media. Caesar’s ascent to the first Roman Emperor (which actually postdates the events covered in Shakespeare’s play) was amalgamated with references to Italian fascism. The starkly geometrical physical scenery mimicked the shutter of a film camera while simultaneously accentuating the triangular archetype of the basic conflict: Antony and Cleopatra are involved in a love triangle with the proto-MAGA Caesar (insofar as erotic desire becomes entangled with political ambition).  

On the second night of the run, the Liceu audience responded more politely than enthusiastically. There’s no question that Antony and Cleopatra, one of Adams’ subtlest creations to date, is a challenging work that requires time and patience to yield its riches. But I came away from this second encounter convinced that the effort generously repays itself and look forward to its next chapter at the Metropolitan Opera.