World Premiere Run Review: Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra” – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 2022

John Adams’ latest opera, whose plot is derived from the Shakesperean tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, received its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera. A run of six additional performances was scheduled to follow the world premiere. This review is of the third of the seven total performances.

There is much to admire in San Francisco Opera’s production of Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra”, including the opera’s stirring orchestration, the fine vocal performances of its twelve principals and Director Elkhanna Pulitzer’s visually attractive production.

Gerald Finley’s Antony

This was my first performance of an opera in which Canadian baritone Gerald Finley was part of the cast. In his only previous performances at the San Francisco Opera, he created the part of J. Robert Oppenheimer in Adams’ opera “Doctor Atomic”. Finley’s Antony was a muscular performance, effectively portraying a man deeply experienced in the political and military affairs of Rome and its subject states.

[Below: Gerald Finley as Antony; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph; courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Amina Edris’ Cleopatra

Assaying the role of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, Antony’s partner in both romance and political intrigue, was Egyptian-born New Zealand soprano Amina Edris. A graduate of both of San Francisco Opera’s young artists’ programs (the Merola Program, 2015; Adler Fellowships in 2016 and 2017), I have been impressed with Edris’ appearances in a range of comprimario roles in San Francisco Opera productions (during San Francisco Opera seasons in which she was official cover for principal roles). In recent months Edris has built a reputation in Europe for principal roles.

[Below: Amina Idris as Cleopatra; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As Cleopatra, Edris demonstrated secure vocalism and impressive acting instincts. She was memorably effective in the closing scene of Act I and the scenes that accompany Antony’s death and her preparations for her suicide.

Paul Appleby’s Caesar Augustus

Indiana tenor Paul Appleby performed the role of Julius Caesar’s nephew Augustus with distinction, his appealing lyric tenor voice adding to a fully realized portrait of a complex character. Appleby’s Caesar, although an engaging personality, is at heart an antidemocratic imperialist. Augustus’ actions centralizing power led Adams to shift the action from Classical Rome at the end of the Republic to Fascist Italy in the 1930s and to imbue his opera with anti-fascist messages.

[Below: Paul Appleby as Caesar Augustus; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Appleby, like Finley, has created a principal role (Joe Cannon) in an Adams world premiere at San Francisco Opera [World Premiere Review: Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West”, San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2017]. In past reviews I have cited his extraordinary performance as Prince Jonathan in a Handel masterpiece [Review: A Visually, Vocally Stunning “Saul” at Houston Grand Opera – October 25, 2019] and as Mozart’s Tamino [Review: The Jun Kaneko “Magic Flute” Revived – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2015] and Don Ottavio [Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015].

Elizabeth DeShong’s Octavia

Cast as Caesar’s sister and Antony’s wife is Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, whose singing and acting portrayed the self-confidence of a woman born to power in classical Rome.

[Below: Octavia (Elizabeth DeShong, left), with her husband Antony (Gerald Finley, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I have admired DeShong’s vibrant mezzo in a variety of assignments at the Los Angeles Opera [Review: Ovations for L. A. Opera’s “Clemency of Titus”: Impressive Singing, Stylish New Production, March 2, 2019 and Review: Rossini Royalty Present Brilliant “Barber of Seville” – Los Angeles Opera, February 28, 2015] and other companies. DeShong’s roles include a performance of Maffio Orsini recorded for posterity [DVD Review: Dramatically, Visually Exciting EuroArts DVD of San Francisco Opera Performance of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”. See also my interview at Rising Stars: An Interview with Elizabeth DeShong

Alfred Walker’s Enobarbas

Portraying Antony’s trusted subordinate Enobarbus, Louisiana dramatic baritone Alfred Walker evoked both the character’s desire to show loyalty to the aging general while exhibiting some skepticism about Antony’s romantic exploits in Egypt.

Since Walker’s chillingly dramatic San Francisco Opera debut as Elektra’s brother Orestes [Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” – Goerke, Pieczonka in a Gory, Gloriously Sung Night at the Museum – September 9, 2017], the artist has been enlisted for roles that utilize his sonorous baritone and forceful stage presence

[Below: Antony’s aide Enobarbus (Alfred Walker) reflects on the influence of Cleopatra (Amina Edris, seated, in a Bill Morrisson projection) on affairs of state; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Walker’s Enobarbas is another indication of the artist’s range of roles, that, in San Francisco, has included Baron Scarpia [Review: Ailyn Pérez , Michael Fabiano, Alfred Walker, Soloman Howard Excel in a Memorable “Tosca” (with a Post-Finale Surprise) – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2021] and the fairy tale children’s father, Peter [Review: A “Must See” San Francisco Opera Production of “Hansel and Gretel”- November 17, 2019].

Hadleigh Adams’ Agrippa

New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams was an engaging presence in the role of the ill-fated Agrippa, whom an enraged Antony has murdered for delivering a message from Ceasar to Cleopatra suggestng that the Queen abandon Antony.

[Below: Agrippa (Hadleigh Adams, right) brings a message from Rome to Cleopatra (Amina Edris, left); edited image based on a Cory Weaaver photograpah, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Adams, an artist who is a graduate of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and Adler fellowships, has performed in comprimario roles for the company. [See Review: An Indomitable “Billy Budd”, San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2019].

Taylor Raven’s Charmian and Other Cast Members

Making her San Francisco Opera debut is North Carolina mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, who showed vocal security as Cleopatra’s servant Charmian.

A graduate of Los Angeles Opera’s Young Artists’ program, Raven had impressed me in the roles of Annio in the production of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” cited above (in which Elizabeth DeShong was Sesto) and as fairy tale Sandman [Review: A joyous “Hansel and Gretel” in Doug Fitch’s enchanting production – Los Angeles Opera, December 9, 2018.]

[Below: attending on Queen Cleopatra (Amina Edris, front right) are Charmian (Taylor Raven, back left) and Iras (Gabrielle Beteag, back right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Another of Cleopatra’s servants, Iras, was performed by Georgia mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag. Missouri tenor Brenton Ryan was Eros. California bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell was Maecenas. Wisconsin baritone Timothy Murray was Scarus. Florida bass-baritone Philip Skinner was Caesar’s and Antony’s fellow triumvir, Lepidus.

John Adams’ Opera

“Antony and Cleopatra” is California composer John Adams’ first major operatic effort in which his frequent collaborator Peter Sellars is neither a co-librettist nor a director of the work. Four of the Adams-Sellars artistic efforts have appeared previously at San Francisco Opera. Two were premieres – 2005’s “Doctor Atomic” and 2017’s “Girls of the Golden West” [World Premiere Review: Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West”, San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2017]. Two had their world premieres elsewhere – “Nixon in China” at the Houston Grand Opera and “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Theater Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium.

In creating the libretto from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Adams preserved much of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English in its iambic pentameter poetic rhythm. Thematically, Adams conceptualized the opera as a exhibition of the anti-democratic forces that led to Caesar Augustus replacing Rome’s democracy with an empire with himself as emperor.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

“Antony and Cleopatra” is richly orchestrated, and the sonic splendor of that orchestration shone brilliantly in the 72-member San Francisco Opera Orchestra, under the authoritative leadership of Maestra Eun Sun Kim. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, directed by Pennsylvania chorus director John Keene, performed brilliantly.

Elkhanna Pulitzer’s Production, Mimi Lien’s Set Designs, Constance Hoffmann’s Costumes, Sets and Bill Morrison’s Projections

California director Elkhanna Pulitzer (who, significantly, lists herself as “libretto consultant”) helped guide the transformation of the opera’s action from Classical Rome and Egypt to a period closer in time to the opera’s audiences.

When Adams set about to transform Antony and Cleopatra into an opera, he was drawn to two events of the 1930s – the consolidation of a fascist state in Italy under Benito Mussolini and the glorification of Cleopatra in Hollywood movies of that period.

The sets by Connecticut designer Mimi Lien and the costumes from California designer Constance Hoffmann are visually impressive and succeed in introducing a cinematic feel to the staging.

[Below: Cleopatra (Amina Edris center, in salmon-colored dress) is surrounded by Egyptian youths fanning Antony (not visible in photograph); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Bill Morrison projections of Caesar Augustus’ consolidation of power underscore the opera’s theme of the loss of democratic institutioms to a fascist leader. (The projections include a newsreel regarding the marriage of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s daughter.)

[Below: the people of Rome (below) listen to the words of Caesar Augustus (Paul Appleby, center) whose image is projected above him (Bill Morrison’s projection); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Final Thoughts

The odds are against any new operatic work finding a secure place in the performance repertory. There are many hurdles to adapting a Shakespearean play to the operatic stage. If Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff” show it can be done with success, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a particularly challenging work with its myriad of characters and daunting number of scenes. Adams and his colleagues, in mounting the production – as would be expected – have made deep cuts in the numbers of characters and scenes.

Adams’ choices in adapting Shakespeare’s work (the structure of the libretto and the time period into which the action is transformed) are controversial. Adams chose to use Shakespeare’s language and rhythmic structure as a predominant feature of the opera. The opera’s time period is moved a couple of millennia into the future from the play’s action (and over three centuries from Shakespeare’s time). Adams’ vocal composition for the principal singers in “Antony and Cleopatra” is less interesting than the opera’s brilliant orchestration, the latter of which confirms that Adams will continue to be a formidable presence among contemporary opera composers.

“Antony and Cleopatra” is unlikely to achieve the widespread success of Adams’ most successful opera to date, “Nixon in China”, but may presage successful future operatic works by the composer.