As in previous seasons, the 23rd annual Virginia Arts Festival includes a significant event featuring the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. This year's featured collaboration was a semi-staged presentation of Shakespeare’s drama Antony and Cleopatra that combined salient portions of the play’s dialog with incidental music composed by Florent Schmitt for the 1920 Paris Opéra production of André Gide’s French translation of Shakespeare's drama.

Bill Mootos © Rachel Greenberg
Bill Mootos
© Rachel Greenberg

Starring the actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein, the Gide production was a lavish affair that spared no expense. It lasted nearly six hours whereas tonight’s performance clocked in at less than one-third the time – thanks to a new adaptation prepared by Shakespearean specialist Bill Barclay. The new version was first mounted in 2016 at the Barbican in London by actors from Shakespeare’s Globe along with Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony. It earned near-universal high-fives from the critics, including high praise from Bachtrack.

Barclay was able to successfully trim Shakespeare’s drama by focusing on the relationship between the two main characters. All of the play’s major scenes are included, but characters like Octavian and Lepidus receive barely a mention. It works well; as one audience member remarked, in today’s world of shortened attention spans, this version of Antony and Cleopatra may be what’s needed to guarantee its continued currency among more than merely the Shakespeare cognoscenti. Indeed so.

Tonight’s presentation appeared to meet the same high bar set by the Barbican production even as it featured a completely different set of thespians and musicians, including a troupe of American actors recruited for the Virginia Arts Festival production. Of the five actors who portrayed nine characters, three were particular standouts: Bill Mootos as Antony, Joel Colodner who portrayed Enobarbus and the Clown, and Daniel Berger-Jones who portrayed Agrippa, Canidius, Eros and the Messenger. All three presented their characters with assurance in eminently believable fashion – and strong of voice as well.

All of the actors wore microphones, but several mic mishaps during the evening meant that some of Antony’s lines were delivered without amplification. From my seat in the audience it made little difference, as Mootos’ voice has the kind of stentorian tone that cuts clear through to an audience – even when paired with music. Niani Feelings’ Cleopatra suffered from a different shortcoming, with vocal delivery that was often on the shrill side and didn’t conjure up the essence of the Queen to best effect. On balance, however, the acting was a fine ensemble performance, with good timing and interplay in the group scenes. As in most Shakespeare dramas, flashes of humor appear in the dialog and these were well-played, too.

Niani Feelings © Rachel Greenberg
Niani Feelings
© Rachel Greenberg

Of course, the other critical role in tonight’s presentation was the music of Florent Schmitt, which had been prepared by the composer for the 1920 Paris production and published as two three-movement concert suites shortly thereafter. Schmitt’s incidental music had originally been performed (and danced) in between the acts of the play, but in Barclay's adaptation it is melded with the words to create a wholly integrated experience. So in this sense, the music serves as an additional “actor” in the dramatic sweep of the play.

And what incredible music it is: opulent, complex and endlessly fascinating. Wisely, in Barclay's adaptation several of Schmitt’s six numbers – the Battle of Actium and the Orgies and Dances, are presented by the orchestra alone. These two movements are simply stunning, showcasing the orchestra “in full flower” in ways that would be exceedingly difficult to bring off properly with voices competing for the limelight. Conductor JoAnn Falletta, who knows this music intimately and has also made the most widely distributed recording of Schmitt's suites, led taut, brilliantly executed performances of these two excerpts, driving the musicians of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra to terrifically exciting climaxes.

Elsewhere, the mood set by the Virginia musicians blended beautifully with the dialog – particularly in the barge scene and the death scenes of Antony and Cleopatra. More than most other composers, Schmitt knew how to create spellbinding moods and they were on full display here, with certain passages spine-tingling in their effect.

Hearing Schmitt’s music, it’s very obvious how challenging it is for performers, with constantly shifting cross-rhythms creating an unsettled atmosphere wholly appropriate to the drama. The ominous fanfares that open the play, along with muted horn calls that appear again and again, really set the scene of darkness and foreboding. Amongst it all, the Antony Leitmotif is rendered in different forms – now noble, now intertwined with Cleopatra’s own sinuous theme. To quote one of Cleopatra’s most famous lines in Shakespeare’s play, “Give me music – moody food of us who trade in love!” It’s a quotation that perfectly describes this Virginia performance.

****1