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date: 08 April 2020

Antony and Cleopatralocked

  • Barbara B. Heyman


Opera in three acts, op.40, by Samuel Barber to a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli after William Shakespeare ’s play; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 16 September 1966.

Commissioned for the opening of the new opera house at Lincoln Center, the original version of Antony and Cleopatra consisted entirely of Shakespeare’s words ( see also Cleopatra ), which Franco Zeffirelli condensed to 16 scenes set in Rome and Egypt, plus one scene aboard a Roman galley omitted in the revised version. Antony (bass-baritone) leaves Egypt and his mistress, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (soprano). Returning to Rome, he is pressed to marry Octavia, sister of Octavius Caesar (tenor). When he goes to Cleopatra instead, Caesar declares war and defeats him. Antony kills himself and Cleopatra commits suicide soon after.

The alternating geographical settings are mirrored in the character of the music: sinuous melodies, luminescent harmonies and exotic orchestral timbres in the Egyptian scenes and for Cleopatra contrast with the angular declamations and driving, irregular rhythms of the brash ‘Roman’ music. Conventional forms support the dramatic action: a fugato and ominous passacaglia, for example, dominate the tense meeting of Antony and Caesar in the Roman Senate (Act 1 scene ii). Recurring motives reinforce dramatic associations through transformation or expansion, giving audible unity to the opera: the Prologue’s brass fanfare opens the Roman scenes in Acts 1 and 2; Cleopatra’s serpentine phrase ‘If this be love indeed’ returns in the orchestral accompaniment to her suicide; her spine- chilling ‘my man of men’ (Act 1 scene iii) returns as the climax of her death scene in Act 3; the haunting choral evocation ‘Cleopatra’ accompanies the vision of her barge on the Nile and pervades the orchestral texture as well. Unusual instrumental combinations are strikingly effective: an electronic instrument and double bass provide an eerie background to the ‘Music i’ the air’ episode, and a solo flute and timpani are chilling accompaniment to the suicides of Antony and Enobarbus. Some of the most sensuous and soaring lyrical passages were composed especially for Leontyne Price, who created the role of Cleopatra. Two arias – ‘Give me some music’ (from Act 1) and the suicide monologue ‘Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me’ (from Act 3) – were expanded in ...

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