John Adams Captures the Songs of Shakespeare

Maybe the riskiest venture that an English-speaking composer can undertake is to make an opera out of Shakespeare. Whilst the repertory is made up of various Shakespeare adaptations, only a person edition by a indigenous speaker has found a protected place on intercontinental phases: Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” from 1960. The dangers of Bardic opera are evident. The performs generate their own indelible new music in the reader’s thoughts, and recitations by celebrated actors linger in the memory. A safer technique is to correct Shakespeare’s drama and psychology when substituting a more fashionable text. Verdi and Arrigo Boito did as much in “Otello” and “Falstaff” so did Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes in “The Tempest,” which designed its début in 2004 and has shown keeping ability. Britten’s singular feat was to established the “Dream” line by line even though imposing his individual lithe, eerie persona.

John Adams, the composer of “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and “Doctor Atomic,” has entered the ring with a finely wrought, fiercely expressive rendering of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which experienced 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 number of interpolations from Plutarch and Virgil. A hyperkinetic opening, with violas tapping out a galloping figure and winds scurrying in pigeonlike haste, presents recognize that Adams will, like Britten ahead of him, carry to bear an unmistakable individual 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 just take on “Hamlet,” which was witnessed at the Met previous year.

Adams has been creating operas given that the nineteen-eighties, and he extended ago founded an incredible knack for earning music from the English language. In put of fixed, singsong designs, 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 Japanese hemisphere beckoned to us,” in “Nixon”: a quick triplet pattern on “hemisphere” helps make the term hover over the defeat, delaying the following accent. The richer the language, the much better Adams’s reaction. When, at the conclusion of the to start with act of “Doctor Atomic,” J. Robert Oppenheimer sings John Donne’s “Batter my heart,” the anguished eloquence of the new music alters how you understand the poem.

At the identical time, Adams possesses a melodic signature that is impartial of his literary resources. The pivotal second in “Harmonielehre,” his breakthrough piece of 1985, is the emergence, halfway through the first movement, of a sprawling, upward- and downward-lunging concept in the strings and horns, additional or considerably less in the crucial of E-flat slight. It is intensely theatrical, gestural tunes, a monologue devoid of terms. In “Antony and Cleopatra,” likewise prowling Adamsian strains surface in the orchestra, now aligned with options of a venerable textual content. The collision with Shakespeare appears to have been inevitable.

“Antony” is the first phase function that Adams has made without having Peter Sellars, who masterminded “Nixon,” “Klinghoffer,” “Atomic,” and other politically charged assignments. All those who desire to see Adams tackle urgent issues of the working day may possibly be dissatisfied, but he has acquired the appropriate to step absent from modern controversies. “Antony” still carries political resonances—notably in its portrait of Octavius Caesar, the foreseeable future Emperor Augustus, who defeats the rebellious lovers and exposes himself as a soulless dictator-in-instruction.

Plutarch, in his everyday living of Antony, wished to demonstrate how a great soldier experienced fallen prey to feminine temptations. Shakespeare complicated that scheme by granting Cleopatra an aura of literary majesty. Adams even further undercuts the Roman moral by letting Cleopatra have both of those the to start with and the very last phrase. In area of Philo’s introductory strains about “The triple pillar of the globe 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 woman garb. The idea of Antony getting “unmanned” so takes on a playful vibe, as if to say, “So what?”

Even so, the enjoy affair of Antony and Cleopatra is no oasis of illicit sensuality, on the get of the numerous incarnations of “Romeo and Juliet,” or of its delirious Wagnerian cousin, “Tristan und Isolde.” The rat-a-tat, scherzando electrical power of the opening bars is sustained all through the initially act, which usually takes us up to Antony’s defeat at the Struggle of Actium. There is a little something determined and unsettled about the antics of these middle-aged lovers, both of whom are dropping floor to a new imperial dispensation. The dialogue unfolds with Adams’s practiced naturalism, nevertheless the orchestra seethes beneath, offering temporary, explosive outbursts that variously advise Cleopatra’s tantrums, Antony’s bouts of self-pity, and the nervous reactions of their underlings. All this instrumental agitation conveys the emotion of figures caught in a rapid-flowing stream that is primary toward certain catastrophe.

The music for Caesar is disciplined and machinelike. Exactly where Antony and Cleopatra’s initial scene is entire of quicksilver changes of meter, Caesar enters with an orchestral juggernaut in 2/4 time, reminiscent of Adams’s minimalist roots. The portion is composed for a tenor, and it frequently presses uncomfortably substantial in register, recalling the bleating monologues of Mao Tse-tung in “Nixon.” At the fruits of Caesar’s improvement, he proclaims himself emperor and addresses a chanting populace: “Rome, ’tis thine alone, with awful sway, / To rule mankind, and make the globe obey.” These words and phrases occur 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 demise, by contrast, unfolds in an atmosphere of imperturbable serenity, implicitly defying Caesar’s cold new buy. Underpinning the scene are unfortunate, 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 rather as well familiar trope—an exoticized girl expiring at an opera’s shut. But Cleopatra is leaving on her own conditions, choosing to have no aspect in “this wild planet.” Her vocal line gravitates toward the decrease conclude of the soprano vary, its contours shapely and unhurried. Her awesome composure is, perhaps, prophetic of one more kind of energy.

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 can make very good feeling, provided how cinematic values affected Fascist iconography: silent videos assisted popularize the so-called “Roman salute,” which does not appear to be to have existed in historic times. The filmmaker Bill Morrison, a learn manipulator of discovered footage, supplies appropriate online video projections, which includes pictures of the relationship of Mussolini’s daughter.

At the heart of the conception is the Machiavellian Caesar, whom the tenor Paul Appleby portrayed with charismatic nastiness on opening evening. Putting on a blue fit, his hair slicked back again, gesturing floridly whilst 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 amongst the two are small. Appleby managed a natural beauty of tone inspite of the role’s taxing needs, and his shipping and delivery of Caesar’s ode to Roman may possibly was a tour de drive that drew unsettled applause from the viewers. This tyrant was each laughable and terrifying: we have met his like in advance of, and we will meet it yet again.

Cleopatra comes across as a star who has emerged from the lifestyle business and is attempting to master it. The purpose was published for Julia Bullock, who withdrew on account of being pregnant. We won’t see a definitive account of “Antony” until eventually that lavishly gifted singer puts her stamp on the element. Amina Edris, who stepped in on small observe, sang with power and finesse, even if her decrease notes ended up a bit obscure. Antony was played by the incomparable Gerald Finley, who originated Oppenheimer in “Doctor Atomic.” On opening night, Finley seemed unsure of the character, his body language awkward and his tone recessed. When I viewed a stream of a subsequent efficiency, I listened to much more of the ruminative richness that is Finley’s trademark. In the scaled-down roles, Alfred Walker stood out for his ironically vacillating Enobarbus and Philip Skinner for his gruff, potent Lepidus. Eun Sun Kim, San Francisco Opera’s vibrant younger new music director, led with crisp command and a positive grasp of the Adams model.

The première of “Antony” was the to start with manufacturing of San Francisco Opera’s centennial time. These who know their theatre heritage may possibly have questioned no matter if broaching this topic issue in a celebratory context risked fiasco: when, in 1966, Samuel Barber’s Italianate adaptation of “Antony” inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera Home at Lincoln Heart, it proved to be a lush dud. Adams’s score is a a lot more musically distinctive generation, but the authentic variation has to do with context. By the later on twentieth century, premières at the Satisfied had become rare occurrences, fraught with expectations. Adams, a longtime Northern Californian, has viewed five of his functions staged at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera Home, to the stage that his presence there has become plan. It is worthy of remembering that the company’s to start with complete season opened with a piece by a living composer, just one that was more recent then than “Nixon in China” is now: “La Bohème.” ♦