I used to think YouTube was just for funny cat videos and recordings of babies doing things their parents thought were cute. I must fully repent my previous ideas. I have made a few finds of musical treasures on the internet in the last year, but none so great as my find of a production of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”. A video on YouTube preserves a television broadcast of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 1991 production of Barber’s opera. I have mentioned before that I absolutely love every note of music Samuel Barber has written. If Sam’s stomach grumbled before dinner, I imagine it would make a beautiful lyrical noise. “Antony and Cleopatra” is one of the few major works of Barber that has not been adopted into the standard repertoire. The YouTube video is the first and only video I have seen of the opera, and have never seen it live.
“Antony and Cleopatra” is after the Shakespeare tragedy of the same name. On the surface, composing music for some of the greatest plays ever written would seem like a recipe for great opera. In reality, it is a very difficult and scary artistic proposition. Many have tried, in fact over 200 operas have been written on the subjects of different Shakespeare plays. Verdi has given us masterpieces in both “Otello” and “Falstaff”, as well as the earlier work on “Macbeth”. There is only one Giuseppe Verdi, a man who dominated Italian opera for over 50 years. If a person has to be on the level of Verdi to make a successful opera based on Shakespeare, very few people will be able to do it.
Part of the trouble with setting plays to music is simply the length of time one can spend in the theatre. Singing text takes much longer that it does to simply speak words. If a composer set every word of a three hour Shakespeare play into music, it would create a twelve hour opera at least! “Libretto” is the Italian word for little book, and the librettist’s job in adapting any play to a libretto for opera is to distill down the text to the essential actions. This inevitably means the original text is cut in some way. How does one make cuts in Shakespeare? It would be like taking scissors to the Mona Lisa and clipping out a section. Moreover, Shakespeare plays have been studied and have filled theaters for over 400 years now. They are beloved works of the theater, and trying to reduce them in such a way to make an opera is only going to leave out someone’s favorite lines and disappoint.
Shakespeare plays present other difficulties as well. There is a poetic rhythm in the lines of his plays, verse written in iambic pentameter. This is difficult to preserve in music, and somewhat problematic to ignore when setting to music as well. Much of the poetry of Shakespeare can be lost, especially when translating it away from English. Old Will also gives us an army of characters in each play. Classical Greek drama only gives us a handful of roles in each story, plus a chorus, and these stories were set in opera seria dozens of times with good success. A Shakespeare cast of 12-15 characters is an entire new level of difficulty for the librettist and composer to handle. Not only are chunks of text cut, but complete characters disappear in the attempts to make a libretto from these plays. Each of these cuts are major interpretive choices made by the creators of the opera, choices that someone is going to hate. There are hundreds of years worth of scholarly criticism about Shakespeare plays, and no two critics agree about them in their original form. One will hardly find two critics to agree on cuts made to them for musical purposes.
The original production of “Antony and Cleopatra” was commissioned for the 1966 opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House. It was not a critical success at the time. The original libretto was taken from Shakespeare’s play by Franco Zeffirelli, who also designed and directed the production. Zeffirelli is a legend of operatic productions, but alas was not quite on the same page as the composer. Barber was writing an opera about the sunset tragedy of two mature lovers trapped and destroyed by international politics. Zeffirelli was creating a huge grand opera production full of glamour, energy and spectacle, in his own words “a pastiche of Elizabethan, Roman, Egyptian and modern — a baroque exuberance.” This mismatch of artistic intent was a recipe for trouble.
Furthermore, this was a new production of a new opera in a brand new theater. The theater was at this point new, meaning untested. Tensions were high, and the new Met’s stage machinery had broken down in rehearsal. Lighting cues did not happen as they were supposed to, and audible cries from stagehands backstage could be heard as they were in danger of being crushed by a giant Sphinx. Poor Leontyne Price was at one point trapped inside a pyramid. Even the orchestra almost went on strike, as they had performed for the past two seasons without a contract. There were plenty of difficulties that high profile opening night.
Opera is a collaborative art, but Barber took much of the difficulties with “Antony and Cleopatra” personally. Later on, he greatly revised the opera, with his partner Gian Carlo Menotti tightening up the libretto. This revised version was put on at the Juliard School in 1975, and an audio recording from the 1983 Spoleto USA production is available. Lyric Opera of Chicago performed the revised version in 1991, which is the source of the video I am so overjoyed to have discovered.