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Lauren Flanigan (Cleopatra) [Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera]
19 Jan 2009

Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra by NYCO

The two performances of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra given at Carnegie Hall — the New York City Opera’s only performances this year while the State Theater is in rehab and the company is in flux — may or may not prove to be swan song of New York’s gallant number two company, whose succession of identity crises have been so fascinating to observe — and hear — over the decades.

Samuel Barber: Antony and Cleopatra (Op. 40, revised version)

Cleopatra: Lauren Flanigan; Iras: Laura Vlasak Nolen; Charmian: Sandra Piques Eddy; Antony: Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Octavius Caesar: Simon O’Neill; Enobarbus: David Pittsinger; Eros: Kevin Massey. New York City Opera orchestra and chorus conducted by George Manahan. Peformance of January 16.

Above: Lauren Flanigan (Cleopatra) [Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera]


Is this a company for American singers or American composers? Or bel canto and Handel rarities? Or neglected twentieth century masterpieces? Or the urban extension of Glimmerglass? Or outrageous modern staging experiments?

If this was the end (and we all hope it’s not), they went out with a major league bang: spectacular singing of an unfamiliar and worthy American work by an enormous cast, spectacular playing of an intricate and rewarding score, a joy in performing on all sides, and in hearing it on our part. This was grand opera excitement at a feverish pitch.

It was certainly an Antony to rank with any — not that there has been much in the way of competition. (I believe you can count the number of stagings the work has had on two hands.) Commissioned to open the new Met in 1966 in the full unflattering light of worldwide publicity, designed to display the acoustic and scenic glories of the new house, Antony fell victim to confusion and overweening ambition on nearly all sides. Zeffirelli’s excessively grandiose production called for full operational capability of brand new machinery that, predictably, malfunctioned in every possible way. Rudolf Bing had resolved to present four new productions in that very first week. Barber’s idiom was troubling to the conservative Met audience (which had heard Wozzeck and Peter Grimes and Jenufa, but had not yet taken them to its heart). The complex orchestration and the choral parts demanded more rehearsal time than they could possibly get in the confusion of that autumn. And Barber’s setting of Zeffirelli’s libretto, derived from one of Shakespeare’s longest and most elaborate tragedies, was anything but taut. It was a world-famous fiasco, and nearly everyone blamed the least offending party: the opera itself.

But even shorn of an hour of music in the revision superintended by Barber himself with Giancarlo Menotti, Antony and Cleopatra is still very much what it was designed to be at its 1966 premiere: the grandest grand opera ever composed by an American. Good as it often is, remarkable as it always is, it cannot become a repertory item because it would fail to make its point at less than gala pitch. (It would be ideal for summer festival performance, such as are given by the opera companies of Seattle or San Francisco.) Lovable and memorable tunes might give us something to hang on to if the cast is less than top notch (as with, say, Verdi’s Don Carlos), but this dramatic, declamatory score has few lovable tunes: even at its grandest, the opera demands concentration of us. Still, with familiarity, an audience cannot fail to grow for this work, and in fifty years or so (following the Don Carlos precedent), I foresee Antony will be so popular there will arise a demand for a return to the original full-length work. (I want to hear it now.)

Our concentration was amply rewarded at the NYCO/Carnegie Hall performances thrillingly led by NYCO’s music director, George Manahan. Subtitles helped us when the chorus was obliged to sing “O Antony, leave thy lascivious wassails” — as they do, repeatedly, but solo lines were comprehensible by themselves. The orchestration, which might have been muddled in a pit, was crystalline and full of intriguing effects. There was first of all a distinction between scenes, primarily martial in character, set in Rome or in Roman camps: Trumpets and other brasses sounded a bit like a Hollywood toga epic. These were contrasted with wonderful sinuous figures and tinkling percussion for scenes of Egypt and Cleopatra’s corrupt, intrigue-ridden court. Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra incarnate these two male and female manners of orchestration and vocal melody, and their encounter leads inexorably to his destruction. (Caesar, in contrast, encounters Cleopatra but never ceases to “orate” with brass support: Love conquers almost all, but Rome conquers love.)

Especially imaginative was Antony's death scene, when, deceived by a false report of Cleopatra’s suicide, he orders his valet to kill him, and the valet kills himself instead: Antony’s fatal resolve emerges over a drum solo, then a keening melody for s solo flute enters for the interchange between Antony and the valet (brightly sung by Kevin Massey), and as the actual suicides approach, cellos and basses pluck the same rhythmic figure as the drum ... ominous and magical and somehow very Roman in the heroic, Plutarchian sense.

The enormous cast were strong to the last guardsman. Lauren Flanigan, a major singing actress who has sometimes had difficulties (as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, Strauss’s Christine Storch, Thomson’s Susan B. Anthony and Barber’s Vanessa) penetrating a large orchestra in the unfriendly acoustic of the New York State Theater, had no trouble filling Carnegie Hall in this soaring, Strauss-like part, and seemed especially to enjoy her whimsical, flirtatious exchanges with Antony, with the messenger who announces Antony’s marriage to Octavia, with her ladies in waiting. I could have used a more voluptuous, insinuating sound for her love music, such as the young Leontyne Price surely brought to it, but Flanigan was assured and effective. Her ladies were sung superbly by mezzos on the verge of major careers: Linda Vlasek Nolan, forthrightly dramatic, and Sandra Piques Eddy, luscious and dark-hued.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose Met debut last winter as Ned Keene in Peter Grimes was striking even when surrounded by a huge, excellent cast, was just as impressive in this Shakespearean colossus of a leading role. If the City Opera still has its glorious production of Mefistofele, this is the man to renew it; if it hasn’t, some company should present one. He has the presence and the range, the power and the legato for it. His Antony was both leader of men and pensive, even depressed, as he considered the ruin his passions have led him to in hollow, reflective phrases.

Simon O’Neill, another New Zealander, making his New York debut, tossed off Caesar’s ungrateful lines as if they were vocalises. Caesar is a Strauss-tenor sort of role, impossibly high, yet O’Neill sang it with stylish ease. David Pittsinger, who has been doing accomplished work all over town for years, and who takes on the Ezio Pinza role in South Pacific this month, sang an admirable Enobarbus, Antony’s guilt-ridden confidante. And so it went through role after role — surely many of these parts would be doubled in an actual repertory performance, but the company seemed eager to show us just how many terrific young singers they had. And this was the revised edition of the score, with six roles omitted!

These performances showed us a company in excellent potential health, and a score ripe for rediscovery, ready to take its rightful place in the American repertory.

John Yohalem

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