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John Adams’ ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ culls marvel in moments

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SEPTEMBER 29, 2022

“Antony and Cleopatra” is not for the faint of heart. Shakespeare’s tragedy traverses the sprawling Mediterranean to track two titans of history as they hurdle toward their demise. It is a triumph of spectacle and scale, practically begging for operatic adaptation. The San Francisco Opera seized the opportunity, kicking off its 100th season with “Antony and Cleopatra,” the newest work from renowned composer John Adams.

In broad strokes, “Antony and Cleopatra” is a story about celebrities, the consequences of fame and power. As one of Rome’s triumvirs, Mark Antony (played by vigorous baritone Gerald Finley) finds himself split between Rome and Egypt, swept up in a passionate romance with Queen Cleopatra (Amina Edris). The affair sparks tension between Antony and another Roman triumvir Octavius Caesar (Paul Appleby), which escalates to incite a ferocious battle and the lovers’ eventual suicides.

The opera, cleverly directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, reimagines the fall of ancient empires in a setting that blends antiquity with the 1930s — an era that witnessed the simultaneous rise of Hollywood and fascism. In the opera, this temporality works with a few speed bumps. The flock of paparazzi that shadows Antony conveys the intensity of his influence. Cleopatra’s costumes, from a terracotta dress to a sequined blue jumpsuit, endear her as a bona fide icon of Old Hollywood. Framing Caesar as a fascist feels a bit on-the-nose, but Appleby’s epic monologue, projected on a row of enormous screens, devours any flicker of weariness.

The set, designed by Mimi Lien, conjures the distinct realms of Rome and Egypt through a mesmerizing jigsaw of folding black panels that resemble the inside of a camera. By compressing and expanding time and vision, the set challenges audience members to interrogate their own gaze upon the famous pair. The high-quality production is more than a flashy gimmick. It excavates the opera’s insight, offering the audience something to chew on when the music inches toward aimless.

Adams’ libretto takes Shakespeare’s play as its central text. Compared to his eclectic “Nixon in China,” Adams brings only a few interpolations — some fetched from Plutarch, Virgil, other Shakespearean works. These texts are chameleonic and fold in without fuss, which makes the libretto of “Antony and Cleopatra” feel monochromatic.

Adams impressively, if at times doggedly, translates complex metrical structures into musical lines that run away like thoughts and undulate like speech. Melodies, both orchestral and vocal, respond to the text’s poetic punch. When Enobarbus (Alfred Walker) describes Cleopatra’s beauty, for instance, his words swell and stir the orchestra to play with a rich fullness. Conductor Eun Sun Kim creates a sensitive soundscape that makes the beauty of Shakespeare’s text illustrious and unmissable.

In any interpretation, “Antony and Cleopatra” demands voracious passion. Without it, the tragedy’s stakes become askew. When the opera opens in Cleopatra’s sleek bedroom, Finley and Edris, glazed in gold light, struggle to kindle the kind of love that could cause empires to crumble. 

The erotic charge to Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship comes across as stunted as they writhe in bedsheets bed but sing in turns. The actors eventually summon white-hot passion in a duet following the battle, a moment that allows Finley and Edris to sing together and envelop the audience in their talents.

The characters seem swaddled in Adams’ verbose libretto. Edris catalyzes explosive tantrums and heart-wrenching grief, but Cleopatra’s humor and wit feel sanded by the libretto, which drowns the melodies in a wordy waterfall. This feature became more problematic when a minor technical issue in Act 2 delayed the supertitles, making Caesar’s commands momentarily indecipherable.

The opera doesn’t quite map onto Adams’ unconventional rulebook, but “Antony and Cleopatra” nonetheless enraptures its audience. Beyond the titular leads, the supporting actors, especially Elizabeth DeShong as Octavia and Hadleigh Adams as Agrippa, flesh out an immersive and scintillating world. Though the play itself orbits around former glory, “Antony and Cleopatra” demonstrates the endurance of excellence at the San Francisco Opera, anticipating a promising season of intrigue and spectacle.

Contact Maya Thompson at 


SEPTEMBER 29, 2022