The glut of Shakespeare400 celebrations have seen the usual suspects wheeled out in musical celebration of the Bard – Mendelssohn's Dream, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Verdi's Falstaff leading the pack. The BBCSO and Sakari Oramo plumped for one of the more obscure works, based on one of the less popular plays. Florent Schmitt composed his incidental music for André Gide's production of Antony and Cleopatra staged at the Paris Opéra in 1920. In collaboration with actors from The Globe, Schmitt and Shakespeare were brought vividly to life.

Janie Dee (Cleopatra) and Simon Paisley Day (Antony) © BBC | Mark Allan
Janie Dee (Cleopatra) and Simon Paisley Day (Antony)
© BBC | Mark Allan

Schmitt's original score is lost, but the composer had arranged two suites (of three movements each) which Bill Barclay, director of music at The Globe, had unpicked the stitching, reordered and sewn back together for a score to accompany a filleted version of the play. Schmitt primarily wrote ballet numbers for the play. The famed Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein was cast in the role of Cleopatra, partnered by Édouard de Max as Antony. We have no idea how the music was incorporated into Gide's production or indeed which scenes correspond to which musical cues, but it is documented that the actors shared the stage with a noisy white peacock! One can't imagine the score was designed to be spoken over – Gide's staging lasted six hours – but the decision to layer the text over the music worked a treat in whipping up giddy excitement.

Janie Dee (Cleopatra) © BBC | Mark Allan
Janie Dee (Cleopatra)
© BBC | Mark Allan

Brass rasped and flexed their collective muscles in “Pompey's Camp” – the fanfares chosen to open the performance – and contributed vigorously to the orgy and bacchanal, as Antony's men enjoy a wild night ahead of the Battle of Actium. There's more than a touch of Hollywood glamour to Schmitt's score, with lush string melodies one can find in some of Korngold's buccaneering film music. I've rarely heard the BBCSO play so splendidly, the strings luxuriating in Schmitt's sensuous lines, sinuous woodwinds coiling through the erotic “Cléopâtre voluptueuse” section of the first suite's opening number. The sea was never far away, with Debussian cymbal splashes and rolling waves. Beneath blue stage lighting, a languourous oboe melody resembled an eastern chant in “Night at the queen's palace”, decorated with twinkling percussion. Highly perfumed, deeply intoxicating.

Directed by Iqbal Khan, the actors – miked and fully costumed – delivered their lines on a wide apron at the front of the platform, as well as from the aisles in the Stalls. The performances were riveting, Sakari Oramo often turning round to watch the few scenes performed without a background score. Simon Paisley Day’s Antony, clad in gold breastplate and grasping his sword, cut a dashing figure, but it was Janie Dee’s glamorous Cleopatra who gave the most gripping rendition. In a slinky gown slashed to the thigh, she oozed breathless excitement and agitation. It was a very physical performance, from boxing the messenger on the nose, to her death scene, clasping the asps to her breast and wrist. Brenden O’Hea’s Enobarbus was commendably clear.

Sakari Oramo, cast and BBCSO © BBC | Mark Allan
Sakari Oramo, cast and BBCSO
© BBC | Mark Allan

“Give me some music; music, moody food / Of us that trade in love,” commands Cleopatra in Act II. This was the most accomplished way of combining words and music I’ve witnessed at the Barbican (and several other venues). May it spawn many successors.