What is it about Cleopatra that continues to fascinate the Western world? Like Marilyn Monroe, she holds a unique place in history, one that sparks endless contemplation about her life and lovers. Both women’s lives seem to revolve around stories of how their relationships with powerful men shaped the world as we know it today. Still, both remain cyphers, so dramatists have little else to do but speculate about what went on in their heads.
In the case of the Egyptian ruler, William Shakespeare did just that. His 1623 tragedy is the basis for John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra, making its world premiere via the SF Opera (through October 5 at the War Memorial Opera House.) Adams wrote both the libretto and the composition, and his piece is about creating larger-than-life characters, with a world that shapes itself it around the passions and maladies of the production’s eponymous couple.
With the action moved to 1930s Europe, we open with our legendary pair (played by Egyptian-born soprano Amina Edris and Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley) as they live a life of domestic bliss in the land of the pharaohs. But the happiness can’t last forever, and it’s only a matter of time until Antony has to resume his post in Rome. He reluctantly forms a union with Octavian Caesar (American tenor Paul Appleby)—even marrying the man’s sister Octavia (mezzo Elizabeth DeShong.) The tactic is more likely to procure Roman victory, but will have lasting repercussions on the life and family Antony has built in Egypt.
The above names comprise the cast, and Adams is certainly the opera’s creator, but the real star of the show is set designer Mimi Lien. The MacArthur Fellow and Merola Opera grad created set pieces both stunning and surreal, and that owe more than a passing influence to German Expressionism. Indeed, it seems that the gigantic Fritz Lang-esque pieces are capable of enlarging and diminishing whatever characters walk in front of them. This includes the Octavian vision that is the ostentatious family portrait of our title couple bathed in gold. So too does it include Octavia, who is made literally and figuratively small in the game of Roman politics. Lien’s sets gleefully occupy every inch of the War Memorial stage. (Having trod those boards myself, I know how fun it can be for both designers and performers to let loose.)
Director Elkhanah Pulitzer makes excellent use of this set, and mostly gets just the right amount of power out of her cast. Edris is particularly effective at not being overwhelmed by the role or the grandeur that surrounds her. Her best work comes in chemistry she shows as part of the trio of Cleopatra and her maids, Charmian (newcomer mezzo Taylor Raven), and Iras (fellow newcomer mezzo Gabrielle Beteag.) Together, the three bring heart and a sort-of intimate access to the ever-unknowable queen. It’s a strength-of-chemistry echoed by Octavian and Antony’s entourages, including Enobarbus (bass-baritone Alfred Walker), Agrippa (New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams), Maecenas (bass-baritone Patrck Blackwell), and Lepidus (bass-baritone Philip Skinner.) Their performances shade in the more abstract areas of the main characters.
Which isn’t to say that Finley and Appleby are bad in their respective roles as Antony and Octavian—but they never truly reach their called-for grandeur. Each is a fine vocalist, but neither seems to take command of the stage the way their co-stars do. The sets move so as to bend to the will of these folks; there’s no need to be subtle all the time. For proof of that, look no further than the work of SF Opera music director Kim Eun-sun, who pushes the orchestra to that appropriate balance of surreal pomp and tragic circumstance.
I’d be remiss not to note that the Opera House—which I’ve visited a lot these last few years, but only recently for a proper opera—is, thankfully, one of the local arts organizations taking COVID protocols seriously, requiring vaccines and masks. During intermission, I visited the press room, where the doors at both ends were open, Dyson fans blew from both angles, an air purifier ran the entire time, and spare masks and hand sanitizer where all around. I couldn’t help but overhear two men talk about the Opera House’s continued commitment to safety measures when so many others have given it up. (“It’s not like [other orgs] lost that many patrons by being safe,” one of them said.) What’s more, the CO² readings on my Aranet4 peaked at 737ppm, often hovering around 634ppm over the course of the three-hour-plus show with a packed house. Never doubt the power of a good HVAC system.
Though Cleopatra herself may always carry an air of mystery, speculating about the details remains an intriguing prospect. At 3 ½ hours long, Shakespeare aficionados may actually find the opera’s ending abrupt, as it lacks the Bard’s final appearance from Octavian—essentially, vanishing him into the ether before the end. Yet Adams seems to know that this is Cleopatra’s show, even if she has to share the title. Even if the entire cast won’t entirely match Adams, Pulitzer, and Kim’s grandeur, the whole makes for an intriguing—and visually jaw-dropping—opener for the new century at SF Opera.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA runs through October 5 at the War Memorial Opera House, SF. More info and tickets here.