The World's Premiere of Antony and Cleopatra


By: Iride Aparicio

Photos Courtesy: S.F. Opera

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Commemorating one hundred years since its foundation, on Saturday, September 10, the San Francisco Opera opened its 2022-2023 Centennial Season lavishly, with the World's Premiere of composer John Adams' opera Antony and Cleopatra, its plot advertised as: "A Roman General and an Egyptian queen embark on a torrid romance, one that will disrupt alliances, and marriages, and spark a pitiless war that gives rise to a new leader Caesar" The opera  Antony and Cleopatra was is also an international co-commission and coproduction, because it is going to be shown at the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y. and at the Barcelona's Lyceum (Liceu) after leaving San Francisco, where it will continue being shown through October 5.

At its Word's Premiere, the opera was conducted by San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim and starring in the principal roles were: Egyptian soprano Amina Edris, in the role of Cleopatra,  Baritone Gerald Finley in the role of Antony  (on photo above) and tenor Paul Appleby in the role of Caesar Octavius.

On his opening night pre-opera talk, S.F. Opera "In House Dramaturge" Kip Crammer told historical facts about Egypt of Antony and Cleopatra to the audience and a very interesting fact in Shakespeare's play of the same name which served as the basis for Adams' opera, Antony and Cleopatra, libretto, which he wrote in consultation with Elkhanah Pulitzer and Lucia Scheckner.

Talking about the real Antony and Cleopatra,  Mr. Crammer mentioned the possibility that when writing his Antony and Cleopatra play in l623, Shakespeare himself, may not have had the correct historical facts about these two characters, because Shakespeare based his drama Antony and Cleopatra, which served as the basis of Adams'opera, on the facts that historian Plutarch has written about them, but that we must remember that  the real Antony and Cleopatra lived in the year 40 before Christ, and that  Plutarch wrote his book The Noble Grecians and Romans, relating their story, in 1579, centuries later.

Another fact that  may make us doubt the credibility in Plutarch's story, is that he did not have any evidence to prove what really occurred, because while the Egyptians could write, and wrote many of their stories in hieroglyphics, there have been no known Egyptian writings of the time that mention Antony or Cleopatra.

Because of it, we must accept the fact that the true story of these two characters as it really happened may never be known to us, because there is also the possibility that in relating his version of the story Plutarch's may have been bias, or relating the story under his point of view since he was a Greek historian.  So, from now on, we just need to enjoy their love story.

Antony and Cleopatra

Composer/Librettist John Adams opera  Antony and Cleopatra, begins with a rhythmic-sounding music in Cleopatra's  Boudoir in Egypt, with Cleopatra (Edris)  dressed in a silk n gown, walking around her room singing a lyric aria in which she describes Antony (Finley) who is sleeping on her bed, to her two girls assistants, a drunken pig. After observing him from her dresser for a few seconds, she gets a silk shawl from a drawer and starts walking towards him this time describing him as the most delicious sight. Approaching the sleeping man, she wakes him up by sensually wrapping the silk shawl around his neck. At her request, a group of adult assistants bring the music of Apollo (The Greek God of Music) to the room. We hear the music as they stand near the bed, playing and simulating to be dancing with their arms. After Antony wakes up the women leave the room and the lovers, this time standing, embrace each other and get into the mood for love. But the scene in interrupted when Agrippa (Hadleigh Adams) a roman soldier in Uniform) enters the room bringing Roman Antony News from Rome.

Adams' Antony and Cleopatra opera, is a work where most of the singers' arias are long and have very high and short tones which allow the singers display their tone. Most arias are not easy to remember at first hearing because they are not melodic. A better way to describe them is as speeches where each words is set to a tone. Another interesting fact worth mentioning about the structure of the opera, is that these long individual Arias are  not accompanied by the orchestra (Start and end together) but that the orchestral music flows seamlessly, like a musical river in the background as the singers interpret  their individual arias. We may better describe the technique by saying that in this opera the orchestra sings its own aria that is long and very important because its sound, its instrumentation, its rhythm, and its volume create the MOOD in the opera. A repeated single sound in the orchestra, generates tension.  A repeated theme (Motif) indicates movement. Changes in its instrumentation indicate a changes in locality. Dissonances, conflict. A Martial rhythm, the movement of armies and the Jolted rhythm a battle.. And with the orchestral music continue flowing the singers start and finish their arias, o say their words. The music of Adam's orchestration in Antony and Cleopatra has a life of its own.

And the Acting of his or her role in Antony and Cleopatra is superb  and the tone of voice of the singers: Admina Edris (Cleopatra) Gearld Finley (Antony) Paul Appleby (Caesar)  Alfred Walker (Enobarbus) Elizabeth DeShong  (Octavia)  Brenton Ryan (Eros)  Taylor Raven (Charmain)  and  Hadleigh Adams  (Agrippa) outstanding in his or her own tonality. The compliment may also apply to the members of Opera' choir. who represented the citizens of Rome.

Stage Director, Elkhanah Pulitzer, enhanced the story by adding movie projections to the sets. Some of the projections are so realistic that in the darkness they visually transport the audience to Egypt as we watch Egyptian balsas floating on the roaring waters of the Nile, and watch a battle of ships. The combined effect of music and projections enhances the opera. But not 
when the action moves from Egypt to Rome and the audience is shown different Roman  streets with massive cement  buildings. and stones'  covered narrow streets with a  line of  old cars  are riding one behind the other.  The sight of those cars destroy the vein of the story.

And the idea of modernizing the opera by changing the Egyptian costumes and Roman togas, for uniforms and women clothes reflecting the Hollywood glamour of the l930's,  steals veracity to the story. The costumes are beautiful, and the Romans Military Uniforms are elegant, but to see Caesar Augustus, also known as Octavian, who reigned from 27BC to AD 14, who was the founder of the Roman Participate, which was the first phase of the Roman Empire, dressed in a Business suit, for many of us, destroy the the magic of the story

Center stage, Tenor Paul Appleby as CesarAugustos also known as Octavian
Center stage, Tenor Paul Appleby as CesarAugustos also known as Octavian

Talking about Antony and Cleopatra, John Adams stated "I am proud to continue my longstanding collaboration with the great San Francisco Opera with this, the fifth opera of mine the company has presented over the years. Antony and Cleopatra is a story that embraces not only the intimate and human, but also the geopolitical and the clash of civilizations. As is always the case with Shakespeare, its themes mirror the realities of life, even as we live it at this very moment."

As written his Antony and Cleopatra may become a classic opera, and become recognized in the future, as his best work as a composer.