John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra triumphs in its European premiere at the Liceu

SpainSpain John Adams, Antony and CleopatraLiceu Chorus and Orchestra / John Adams (conductor). Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 28.10.2023. (JMI)

John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra in Barcelona © Gran Teatre del Liceu

Director – Elkhanah Pulitzer
Sets – Mimi Lien
Costumes – Constance Hoffmann
Lighting – David Finn
Videos – Bill Morrison
Dramaturgy – Lucia Scheckner

Antony – Gerald Finley
Cleopatra – Julia Bullock
Caesar – Paul Appleby
Charmian – Adriana Bignagni Lesca
Enobarbus – Alfred Walker
Eros – Brenton Ryan
Scarus – Milan Perišic
Lepidus – Guillem Batllori
Agrippa – Äneas Humm
Maecenas – Toni Marsol
Octavia – Elizabeth DeShong
Iras – Marta Infante

American John Adams is one of the most important composers today, especially in the field of opera. Two of his works have already entered the repertoire of the main opera theaters, Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China, to which Antony and Cleopatra can be added.

Antony and Cleopatra was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the Liceu, and had a successful premiere in San Francisco in September 2022 (review here); this is its European premiere. The libretto, based on the Shakespeare play, is by John Adams with the collaboration of Elkhanah Pulitzer, the stage director. The libretto is well-constructed and follows the Shakespeare plot nicely.

John Adams’s music is brilliant, and the orchestration is magnificent, especially in the second part of the opera, and for the death scenes of the protagonists in particular. It is obviously not the music of nineteenth-century operas, but it is excellent, and one listens with attention and interest.

The staging is the same as the one used in San Francisco. It follows the plot perfectly and allows for quick changes. The indoor scenes take place in small rooms at the front of the stage, always with a door at the back where you can see landscape and sometimes a staircase. The outside scenes are done with projections taken from films of the 1930s, which is where the production places the action – Julius Caesar is a new Mussolini. Elkhanah Pulitzer’s direction is fine, and the lighting by David Finn is superb.

John Adams himself was conducting, although the San Francisco orchestra at the premiere was led by Eun Sun Kim. There is no doubt that nobody knows a work as well as the one who composed it and, therefore, it is not surprising that his conducting was brilliant – it could not be otherwise. Adams drew outstanding performances from the Liceu Chorus and Orchestra, and interest did not wane for a moment.

Julia Bullock (Cleopatra) and Gerald Finley (Antony) © Gran Teatre del Liceu

Antony was sung by baritone Gerald Finley, who was outstanding. For my taste, he was the most convincing vocally of all the singers. He has an appealing voice and expressed himself perfectly, especially in his great death scene. The tessitura of his part moves mainly in the center, and Finley took advantage of that.

Soprano Julia Bullock was Cleopatra. She had been scheduled to sing the part at the San Francisco premiere but had to cancel because of her pregnancy. Bullock was good, with a voice that seemed to me more mezzo-soprano than soprano. In the center, her voice works without problems, but it loses quality in the upper notes and is less pleasing. She is a solid performer.

Caesar was played by tenor Paul Appleby, whose voice is fine for the role. He stood out in his big scene in the second part of the opera.

Among the secondary characters I should mention bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Enobarbus, Cleopatra’s assistant, who has an ample, inviting voice. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Octavia has an attractive voice, and Aneas Humm as Agrippa and Brenton Ryan as Eros did well. Adriana Bignagni Lesca made a good impression as Charmian.

José M. Irurzun 

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