This two-night Carnegie Hall run of concert performances of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” comes at the darkest time in New York City Opera’s 65-year history. Due to management upheavals and the financial crisis, the company’s entire 2008-09 season consists of these two nights, and its future is in real jeopardy. But this week’s hiring of George Steel as NYCO’s new general manager and artistic director, plus this first-rate concert, provide a glimmer of hope.
When Barber’s opera had its world premiere at the opening night of the new Met at Lincoln Center in 1966, it proved an unmitigated disaster. Franco Zeffirelli’s huge production was deemed impossibly unwieldy, a fact borne out when its star Leontyne Price got stuck inside a pyramid. Critics had a field day attacking both the production and the work itself.
Over the years, Barber radically revised the opera, shearing six characters and nearly an hour’s worth of music. This revised version is the one usually heard today in the opera’s sporadic performances.
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Barber’s unjustly maligned score is taut and thrilling, but unfortunately most of the melody lies in the orchestra, with its voluptuous textures and seething tension. The vocal lines of the singers often border on the atonal, sitting awkwardly on Shakespeare’s high-flown, archaism-packed phrases. Shakespeare’s language is also at odds with Barber’s mid-20th century musical style, which sounds a lot like a great film score by Hugo Friedhofer or Bernard Hermann.
But with a cast as compelling as this one, a good case can be made for “Antony and Cleopatra.”
In the title roles, baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes and soprano Lauren Flanigan pack plenty of star power. His charisma and resonant timbre has propelled Rhodes’ rapid rise in the opera world. His is the ideal sound for this virile warrior torn between the call to battle and his consuming romantic passion.
One of our most talented singing actresses, Flanigan can take what is essentially a light voice and boost her volume to compete successfully with Barber’s large, loud orchestration. One may miss the sensual spinto ripeness Price brought to the role, particularly in her upper register, but Flanigan’s dramatic instincts held the audience riveted. She was able to spin out gorgeous, long-lined phrases effortlessly on a single breath, riding over orchestra, chorus and massed soloists.
Antony’s cohort Enobarbus was sung elegantly by bass-baritone David Pittsinger, taking a few days off from his current duties filling in for Paulo Szot in Lincoln Center’s “South Pacific.” The short but crucial role of Caesar was taken by budding heldentenor Simon O’Neill, whose penetrating timbre made up in heft what it lacked in lushness. While O’Neill’s sound is not altogether pretty, it is distinctive and exciting on its own terms.
Mezzos Laura Vlasak Nolen and Sandra Piques Eddy handled their small roles as Cleopatra’s handmaidens with real flair. Both sounded plummy and sexy, and both looked stunning onstage.
Orchestra and chorus are in constant competition with the singers in this opera. Conductor George Manahan and chorus master Charles F. Prestinari managed the rare feat of keeping everyone in the right balance without ever missing the strong sense of drama and even hysteria that runs through the score.
NYCO has performed a kind of resurrection on this long-ignored work. Let’s hope the company’s next successful resurrection will be its own.