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Classical 101

Samuel Barber Centennial: Antony and Cleopatra

FIVE AUDIO PIECES - ALL MUSIC     Composer Samuel Barber (d. 1981) would have had his 100th birthday on March 9, 2010. In celebration of this fine American composer, we have been looking at-listening to-some of his vocal music. Barber worked well in all genres: Chamber music, Symphonic music, piano and violin concerti, art song (magnificent) and opera. His two major operas were written for the Metropolitan: Vanessa in 1958, and, for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, Antony and Cleopatra in 1966. The failure of Antony and Cleopatra with the critics and the glittering opening night audience (Imelda Marcos, for goodness sake!) crowding into Wallace Harrison's new Met on September 16, 1966, ruined Samuel Barber's life. He lived another fifteen years, but the disappointment crushed him, his productivity fell off, he ended his long term relationship with Gian-Carlo Menotti, and he battled depression and alcoholism. I will never understand why this opera was a failure. I can only guess that the political and storied audience, which had turned out understandably to see the new Met, would have been thrilled with Leontyne Price in Aida or Tebaldi in La boheme, rather than something new. Met General Manger Rudolph Bing was himself doubtful about the choice of  Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra as a subject for this new opera: "Not one of the stronger plays"(!), he wrote. The production was staged to gaudy excess by Franco Zeffirelli, who had also adapted Shakespeare's play into a libretto. The opera's huge sets broke the stage turntable in the new theater during the rehearsals - the weight of the pyramids and the sphinxes literally crushed the new stage, and in all this chazerei, Barber's luscious music got lost (Leontyne Price was trapped inside a pyramid and her displeasure is evident in a TV film made during rehearsals). No complaints about the casting. Leontyne Price, Barber's longtime muse and America's reigning soprano, sang Cleopatra. She was joined by the young Justino Diaz as Antony, and the cast included some wonderful names among American singers: Rosalind Elias-Barber's magnificent Erika in Vanessa, Jess Thomas,  Ezio Flagello and Andrea Velis. Thomas Schippers, a long time Barber/Menotti protege and a favorite in New York conducted. The ink was still wet on some of Barber's pages on opening night, and the premiere, which was broadcast internationally sounded chaotic and under-rehearsed . Stage managers yelling "Go!" and "Move it!" and presumably worse can be clearly heard. Curtain up. We're at the Met on September 16, 1966 for the world premiere of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra: From Alexandria, this is the news; Antony fishes, drinks and wastes/The lamps of night in revel; [audio:from-alexandria1.mp3] Antony salutes Cleopatra, even if he must leave her for battle: I pray you seek no color for your going/But bid farewell and go [audio:bid-farewell-and-go4.mp3] And Cleopatra wallows in her passion for Antony: O Charmian, where think you he is now? Stands he, or sits he? Or does he walk?  Or is he on his horse?  O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony! [audio:o-charmian3.mp3] The duet "Take o take these lips away" is not in the original score. Barber added this when he revised the opera in 1978 for performances at the Juilliard School. The text is not from Antony and Cleopatra but I think this scene is one of the highlights of the score. The excerpt following is from one of the opera's few revivals (phooey!),  at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1992, with Catherine Malfitano and Richard Cowan: [youtube pk-q4nny05E 490 344] The opera ends with Antony's death and Cleopatra's suicide, with the asp "my baby at my breast" Methinks I hear Antony call; I see him rouse himself to praise my noble act. Husband I come! Now to that name my courage prove my title! I am fire and air, my other elements I give to baser life [audio:give-me-my-robe1.mp3] The opening night performance was well applauded as the Metropolitan's beloved commentator Milton Cross told us: [audio:bows1.mp3] But the critics shrugged:

Mr. Barber's score for Antony and Cleopatra-like that of his Vanessa- is strongly based on the Romantic period. One might label lit "Egyptological modern", with a slight American accent; some of the harmonies splay out in open position, typical of the American sound. But his tonal structure is overlaid with the gauze of harps and flutes; the orchestra shimmers with trills and tremolos that make the music pleasant listening, if not always dynamically so. -Harold Rogers, The Christian Science Monitor

I'd give a lot to hear Barber's Antony and Cleopatra in the theater. The opera has been revived in recent years, twice  at Carnegie Hall, at the Spoleto Festival, in Chicago and earlier this year in Philadelphia, a city closely associated with Samuel Barber. It lasted seven performances at the Met in 1966 and was never heard there again. Their loss. I think it's a perfectly beautiful opera.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.