John Adams Captures the Music of Shakespeare

Perhaps the riskiest enterprise that an English-talking composer can undertake is to make an opera out of Shakespeare. Though the repertory has many Shakespeare variations, only one particular variation by a indigenous speaker has located a secure position on worldwide levels: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” from 1960. The dangers of Bardic opera are evident. The performs deliver their own indelible new music in the reader’s head, and recitations by celebrated actors linger in the memory. A safer technique is to appropriate Shakespeare’s drama and psychology though substituting a far more fashionable textual content. Verdi and Arrigo Boito did as significantly in “Otello” and “Falstaff” so did Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes in “The Tempest,” which built its début in 2004 and has revealed staying electricity. Britten’s singular feat was to set the “Dream” line by line though imposing his possess lithe, eerie individuality.

John Adams, the composer of “Nixon in China,” “The Dying of Klinghoffer,” and “Doctor Atomic,” has entered the ring with a finely wrought, fiercely expressive rendering of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which had its première on September 10th, at San Francisco Opera. The libretto, which Adams devised in session with the phase director Elkhanah Pulitzer and the dramaturge Lucia Scheckner, is predominantly straight-up Shakespeare, with a handful of interpolations from Plutarch and Virgil. A hyperkinetic opening, with violas tapping out a galloping figure and winds scurrying in pigeonlike haste, presents discover that Adams will, like Britten right before him, provide to bear an unmistakable particular voice. You have the perception that the composer is not overawed by the assignment. This is in distinction to Brett Dean’s excessively self-aware consider on “Hamlet,” which was found at the Satisfied last period.

Adams has been creating operas given that the nineteen-eighties, and he very long back established an remarkable knack for generating music from the English language. In put of preset, singsong patterns, he has perfected a malleable vocal line that follows the irregular rhythms of thought and speech. Take into account how he handles the phrase “The Jap hemisphere beckoned to us,” in “Nixon”: a speedy triplet sample on “hemisphere” makes the phrase hover previously mentioned the conquer, delaying the up coming accent. The richer the language, the more robust Adams’s reaction. When, at the finish of the initial act of “Doctor Atomic,” J. Robert Oppenheimer sings John Donne’s “Batter my heart,” the anguished eloquence of the music alters how you perceive the poem.

At the very same time, Adams possesses a melodic signature that is independent of his literary resources. The pivotal moment in “Harmonielehre,” his breakthrough piece of 1985, is the emergence, midway by the very first movement, of a sprawling, upward- and downward-lunging topic in the strings and horns, more or less in the important of E-flat small. It is intensely theatrical, gestural music, a monologue without the need of text. In “Antony and Cleopatra,” equally prowling Adamsian lines surface area in the orchestra, now aligned with configurations of a venerable text. The collision with Shakespeare seems to have been inescapable.

“Antony” is the 1st stage get the job done that Adams has developed without having Peter Sellars, who masterminded “Nixon,” “Klinghoffer,” “Atomic,” and other politically charged assignments. All those who would like to see Adams handle urgent issues of the working day may perhaps be dissatisfied, but he has acquired the suitable to phase absent from modern day controversies. “Antony” still carries political resonances—notably in its portrait of Octavius Caesar, the upcoming Emperor Augustus, who defeats the rebellious lovers and exposes himself as a soulless dictator-in-schooling.

Plutarch, in his everyday living of Antony, wished to show how a wonderful soldier had fallen prey to feminine temptations. Shakespeare complex that plan by granting Cleopatra an aura of literary majesty. Adams additional undercuts the Roman ethical by allowing Cleopatra have both equally the initial and the past term. In area of Philo’s introductory strains about “The triple pillar of the earth transform’d / Into a strumpet’s fool”—words that Caesar will utter later in the opera, with spluttering venom—Cleopatra and her handmaidens enact a scene imported from “The Taming of the Shrew,” dressing the drunken Antony in female garb. The idea of Antony getting “unmanned” consequently can take on a playful vibe, as if to say, “So what?”

Nevertheless, the appreciate affair of Antony and Cleopatra is no oasis of illicit sensuality, on the purchase of the numerous incarnations of “Romeo and Juliet,” or of its delirious Wagnerian cousin, “Tristan und Isolde.” The rat-a-tat, scherzando electricity of the opening bars is sustained throughout the 1st act, which can take us up to Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium. There’s a little something determined and unsettled about the antics of these middle-aged fans, both equally of whom are getting rid of ground to a new imperial dispensation. The dialogue unfolds with Adams’s practiced naturalism, however the orchestra seethes beneath, providing brief, explosive outbursts that variously propose Cleopatra’s tantrums, Antony’s bouts of self-pity, and the nervous reactions of their underlings. All this instrumental agitation conveys the experience of characters caught in a immediate-flowing stream that is top towards sure catastrophe.

The audio for Caesar is disciplined and machinelike. In which Antony and Cleopatra’s to start with scene is whole of quicksilver adjustments of meter, Caesar enters with an orchestral juggernaut in 2/4 time, reminiscent of Adams’s minimalist roots. The part is composed for a tenor, and it normally presses uncomfortably high in sign-up, recalling the bleating monologues of Mao Tse-tung in “Nixon.” At the culmination of Caesar’s progress, he proclaims himself emperor and addresses a chanting populace: “Rome, ’tis thine by itself, with awful sway, / To rule mankind, and make the environment obey.” These phrases appear from John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid, but they mesh neatly with Shakespeare. The orchestra embodies a vicious grandeur that again smacks of “Nixon”—this time the totalitarian pageantry of Jiang Qing.

Cleopatra’s death, by contrast, unfolds in an environment of imperturbable serenity, implicitly defying Caesar’s chilly new get. Underpinning the scene are unhappy, stately descending figures in the harps, which nod to Stravinsky’s neoclassical ballet “Orpheus.” A shimmering soundscape of gongs, celesta, and the dulcimer-like cimbalom extends the rapt temper. It is an outdated and alternatively much too familiar trope—an exoticized lady expiring at an opera’s shut. But Cleopatra is leaving on her very own phrases, deciding upon to have no portion in “this wild earth.” Her vocal line gravitates toward the reduce close of the soprano array, its contours shapely and unhurried. Her neat composure is, potentially, prophetic of a different form of electric power.

Pulitzer’s smooth, stylized production—with sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Constance Hoffman, and lights by David Finn—locates the motion in the nineteen-thirties, mixing the seedy splendor of pre-Code Hollywood with the monumental bombast of Fascist Italy. The linkage tends to make fantastic sense, specified how cinematic values motivated Fascist iconography: silent motion pictures served popularize the so-termed “Roman salute,” which does not feel to have existed in ancient periods. The filmmaker Monthly bill Morrison, a learn manipulator of observed footage, materials acceptable video projections, which include illustrations or photos of the marriage of Mussolini’s daughter.

At the coronary heart of the conception is the Machiavellian Caesar, whom the tenor Paul Appleby portrayed with charismatic nastiness on opening night. Wearing a blue fit, his hair slicked back again, gesturing floridly though twisting in his seat, Appleby fashioned a vivid photo of hollow authority. Is he a snappily dressed dictator? Or a brassy studio main? The psychological dissimilarities concerning the two are insignificant. Appleby managed a splendor of tone despite the role’s taxing demands, and his shipping and delivery of Caesar’s ode to Roman might was a tour de drive that drew unsettled applause from the viewers. This tyrant was equally laughable and terrifying: we have met his like just before, and we will meet up with it once more.

Cleopatra will come throughout as a star who has emerged from the culture sector and is attempting to master it. The role was published for Julia Bullock, who withdrew on account of being pregnant. We will not see a definitive account of “Antony” until finally that lavishly gifted singer places her stamp on the part. Amina Edris, who stepped in on limited notice, sang with pressure and finesse, even if her lower notes have been a little bit imprecise. Antony was played by the incomparable Gerald Finley, who originated Oppenheimer in “Doctor Atomic.” On opening night time, Finley seemed uncertain of the character, his body language uncomfortable and his tone recessed. When I viewed a stream of a subsequent overall performance, I read a lot more of the ruminative richness that is Finley’s trademark. In the lesser roles, Alfred Walker stood out for his ironically vacillating Enobarbus and Philip Skinner for his gruff, strong Lepidus. Eun Sun Kim, San Francisco Opera’s lively younger songs director, led with crisp command and a guaranteed grasp of the Adams model.

The première of “Antony” was the very first creation of San Francisco Opera’s centennial year. Those people who know their theatre record could have questioned irrespective of whether broaching this subject matter make a difference in a celebratory context risked fiasco: when, in 1966, Samuel Barber’s Italianate adaptation of “Antony” inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera Household at Lincoln Centre, it proved to be a lush dud. Adams’s score is a far more musically unique development, but the true distinction has to do with context. By the afterwards twentieth century, premières at the Satisfied experienced develop into uncommon occurrences, fraught with anticipations. Adams, a longtime Northern Californian, has noticed five of his functions staged at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera Home, to the level that his presence there has develop into program. It is worth remembering that the company’s initial entire year opened with a piece by a dwelling composer, 1 that was more recent then than “Nixon in China” is now: “La Bohème.” ♦

Kenneth Proto

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