BARBER: Antony and Cleopatra

BARBER: Antony and Cleopatra. Jeffrey Wells, bass-baritone (Antony); Esther Hinds, soprano (Cleopatra); Robert Grayson, tenor (Caesar); Eric Halfvarson, bass-baritone (Enobarbus); Jane Bunnell, mezzo-soprano (tras); Kathryn Cowdrick, alto (Charmian); Westminster Choir (Joseph Flummervelt, director); Spoleto Festival Orchestra conducted by Christian Badea. NEW WORLD RECORDS NW 322/323/324 (three discs), produced by Elizabeth Ostrow, $29.94.

The notorious premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra was an event whose significance was at least as much sociological as artistic. Without belaboring what may already be familiar to many readers: Samuel Barber had been selected to provide a new work for the opening in 1966 of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, cultural showpiece of the “Great Society” era. Barber, a dependably “safe” composer in the eyes of the cultural plutocracy, was a sensible choice. Not only had he demonstrated a gift for vocal music, with two operas and many songs to his credit, but he was a WASP aristocrat himself who had enjoyed a long line of successes under the most prestigious auspices. Rewarded for writing the kind of well-bred, conservative music that was most natural to him by hearing it performed by the world’s greatest musicians, Barber had little reason to jeopardize his fortunate position.

Art, of course, is subject to different criteria from those applicable to social or political (or even moral) questions; thus inferences or extrapolations cannot be made from one realm to the other. However, most people are more comfortable with questions of the latter kind than with those prompted by a work of art — modern art, in particular — and frequently simplify the issue by reacting to artists on the basis of their social “image” or affiliation — especially in times of social polarization. By the mid 1960s a growing anti-establishment feeling had begun to reach the most sclerotic cultural institutions, if only in the form of that fatuous vanity known as “radical chic.” Samuel Barber, comfortably enshrined in middle age, had become an easy target for people who couldn’t distinguish his music from Aaron Copland’s, but who saw him as the well-fed beneficiary of artistic complacency and social privilege — two unpardonable sins according to the standards of “radical chic.”

This was the climate in which Antony and Cleopatra was introduced, with libretto and staging by Franco Zeffirelli, and with Leontyne Price in the role of Cleopatra. The artistic significance of the event was dwarfed by the surrounding circumstances, and the reactions of many observers were preconditioned before the first note was played. Overly elaborate staging, evidently motivated by lack of confidence in the music, proved disastrous, supplying a convenient point of entry for sneering critics. Amid comprehensive condemnation, little of substance was ever said about the music, aside from the usual guilt-by-association drivel that is the middlebrow critic’s stock-in-trade.

Barber was reportedly devastated by this unmitigated failure; indeed, a number of his friends attributed his subsequent withdrawal from composition, save for a handful of minor, mediocre pieces, to the demoralizing effect of this public abuse. Moreover, many who knew and understood Barber’s music insisted that the work deserved a rehearing, that it had simply been overwhelmed by the production and the event itself. While conceding that Barber’s particular gifts were not ideally suited to the spectacular grandeur of Shakespeare’s play, they argued that the work contained much fine music that could be successfully reshaped into a somewhat different sort of opera. This contention gained support as a result of Leontyne Price’s magnificent recording of two impressive excerpts from the opera (available on RCA AGLI-5221). Finally, with the help of Gian-Carlo Menotti, who had written the librettos for Barber’s two previous operas and understood his artistic personality deeply, the composer undertook a major revision, essentially retailoring the work to more intimate proportions.

The revised version was presented by the Juilliard American Opera Center in 1975, at which time it met with a much more favorable response. It was presented again at the Spoleto Festival in 1983, the production from which this recording was taken, providing the general public with an opportunity to become acquainted with the work and evaluate it for themselves. 

Looking back over the comments — mostly inane, some reasonable — that have been made about Antony and Cleopatra in its several productions and versions, one criticism recurs: that the work does not capture the scope, depth of characterization, or grandeur of vision found in Shakespeare’s play. This is definitely true. But it is also true of virtually all operas based on Shakespeare’s serious plays — including the most popular and generally admired that may occur to the reader. As was belatedly recognized, Barber’s gifts favor intense emotions within an intimate human context — not grand spectacles. But, opera being such an unwieldy, intransigent, and circumscribed art form, with few necessary or sufficient conditions for its success, it seems to me foolish to complain about what dramatic qualities may be lacking. What ultimately matters is what an opera does — not doesn’t — do. After all, there is hardly a successful opera (Mozart’s, perhaps, being the exceptions) that doesn’t fail to meet the highest standards of drama. Obviously, these standards are not really relevant to opera, and only with new operas are they strenuously applied. More relevant questions are: Does the music support the basic emotional tone of the drama? Does the music carry the dramatic progression without weighing it down? Is the music interesting and ingratiating in its own right? Is the vocal writing practical and effective? 

Applying these questions to Antony and Cleopatra, I would answer in the affirmative. With much of the problematic spectacle music, several characters, and some extravagant orchestral effects eliminated, and the dramatic and musical structure somewhat simplified, one is left with a torrid melodrama of sexual obsession set against an exotic, ancient Mediterranean back-drop. Most closely resembling the gorgeous Andromache’s Farewell of 1963, the music is consistently affecting and engrossing, propelled by a readily graspable dramatic and musical logic, a consistent style and emotional tone, and plenty of musical lines that remain in the memory. The musical language shifts on a fulcrum between a stern “Roman” tone built on fourths and fifths in the manner of Rozsa and a chromatic, languorous “Egyptian” opulence reminiscent of Scriabin’s ecstatic vein. Sumptuously orchestrated, quite a few of its 15 scenes boast music of stunning lyricism and majestic nobility in Barber’s mature romantic style, with broader harmonic and rhythmic scope than his best-known music from the 1930s and more integrity than the imitative neoclassical pieces of the 1940s. Furthermore, despite the cloud that has hung over the work for nearly 20 years, the music has left its mark on much of the operatic and vocal output of younger American composers who have followed the Barber tradition, e.g., Hoiby, Pasatieri, Sbordoni  — even Sondheim, in Sweeney Todd.

The performance captured here is extremely convincing, the dramatic tension carefully regulated by Christian Badea. As Antony and Cleopatra, bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells and soprano Esther Hinds (who created the role in the 1975 premiere of the revised version) are both fine. Only bass-baritone Eric Halfvarson, a rather woolly Enobarbus, is disappointing. The chorus could be a little stronger, but the orchestra is excellent. Aside from a slight lack of presence noticeable when the percussion should be more prominent, the recorded sound is more than adequate, enabling the generous supply of musico-dramatic highpoints to achieve shattering impact.

I would not at all be surprised if this recording launches a new life for Antony and Cleopatra. It is hard to believe that anyone looking for the conventional operatic virtues will he disappointed by it.