“When you get to be my age, you’re not compared to other composers,” John Adams told The New York Times recently. “You’re compared to your earlier works.” That’s as maybe, but his ninth stage work, Antony and Cleopatra, composed to open San Francisco Opera’s centennial season, invites comparison with an ill-starred season-opening predecessor based on the same Shakespeare play. Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra inaugurated the new Metropolitan Opera House in September 1966, an opulent Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza starring Leontyne Price as the Queen of the Nile. Barber’s opera flopped, revived only infrequently. Will Adams’ suffer a similar fate?

Amina Edris (Cleopatra) and Gerald Finley (Antony)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

If it does, it will largely be down to the libretto, which was crafted by Adams himself, with director Elkhanah Pulitzer and dramaturg Lucia Scheckner. They take the secateurs to Shakespeare, reducing its 42 characters to a manageable dozen, but there’s still a lot of the Bard’s text to wade through in dense Elizabethan syntax. Barber’s version, incidentally, is more concise, coming in about an hour shorter. Adams throws in text borrowed from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid for Caesar’s proto-fascist rallying speech. In the first half particularly, you’re glad you read the synopsis beforehand, so thick and fast comes the dialogue that it’s a surtitle speedread.

Paul Appleby (Caesar)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

In many ways, Adams’ first opera without Peter Sellars as a collaborator also feels like his most conventional. It doesn’t have the controversy of Nixon in China (1987) or The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), which set (then) recent events, or the enigmatic, patchwork quilt-like qualities of Doctor Atomic or Girls of the Golden West. Instead, Antony and Cleopatra tells a straightforward narrative – albeit a breathlessly intense one. The restless plot is always on the move, aided by Mimi Lien’s sliding geometric sets that keep the action fluid. Pulitzer sets the opera in the 1930s, with Art Deco allusions. Bill Morrison’s grainy newsreel footage provides Paul Appleby’s power hungry Caesar a Mussolini-like aura. Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra is evoked in Constance Hoffman’s stylish costumes that hint at Hollywood glamour, not least when Amina Edris’ Cleo reclines on a deckchair, sipping a Martini. 

Taylor Raven (Charmian), Gabrielle Beteag (Iras) and Amina Edris (Cleopatra)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The score contains many recognisable Adams’ traits: there’s the rhythmic energy and ostinatos of his earliest works; swirling woodwinds; militaristic brass portraying Caesar’s brutal ambition. There are few set piece solos or duets. Instead, the work has a through-composed quality, Adams setting speech rhythms in the manner of Debussy or Janáček. Cleopatra’s vocal lines are angular; Antony’s are sturdier, more grounded; Caesar’s are tense, hectoring. 

Adams’ orchestration introduces a cimbalom wafting through the Egyptian scenes, an instrument previously used in his violin concerto, Scheherazade.2. Among the orchestral interludes, the prelude to the Battle of Actium begins by the Nile with a watery nod to the opening of Das Rheingold. In Act 1, the score is all bustle and busyness, with little sensuality to depict the passion between Antony and Cleopatra. It ends, however, with a pulsating chorus and a fine solo for the defeated Antony, after which the opera’s finest moments occur in the second half. Antony’s death scene, in duet with Cleopatra as they are framed by stars, is incredibly moving, although there then follows a degree of padding before we get to Cleopatra’s death by asp. 

Amina Edris (Cleopatra)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s music director, Eun Sun Kim, conducted with great precision and energy and there were some great vocal performances. The role of Cleopatra was written for Julia Bullock, who withdrew due to pregnancy but is scheduled to perform it when the staging transfers to co-producers the Liceu, Barcelona, next season. Instead, Egyptian-born lyric soprano Amina Edris took on the role and glittered effortlessly in its higher passages, exuding star quality. There was a sexy smokiness to her tone, although it occasionally sounded hollow in her lowest register. Gerald Finley exuded authority as Antony, his polished, nut-brown bass-baritone lending gravitas to the role, his diction outstanding. Antony and Cleopatra are not young lovers and there was a sense of worldliness to their relationship, even if the sensuality was largely absent. 

Paul Appleby (Caesar), Elizabeth DeShong (Octavia) and Gerald Finley (Antony)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Appleby was tireless as the tyrannical Octavius Caesar, his bright tenor gleaming through some demanding vocal writing, while Elizabeth DeShong’s ripe mezzo impressed as his sister, Octavia. Alfred Walker was a sonorous Enobarbus, his “Age cannot wither her” one of the few reflective moments in Act 1. 

Much of Adams’ music is excellent and I can’t help thinking there’s a fine opera here, waiting to emerge. After its flop at The Met, Barber extensively revised his Antony and Cleopatra, aided by Gian Carlo Menotti. It’s too soon, on a single viewing, to judge whether such extensive surgery could be useful here, but time will tell.

This performance was reviewed from the San Francisco Opera video stream.