Barber in gold, silver, lame and mylar

Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, branded a monstrous failure when it opened at the Met in 1966 and stands as one of the all time theatrical catastrophes. Even the 1963 film Cleopatra had the benefit Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s canoodling to blame. But for this Barber opus debuting in a newly built Met house, it couldn’t have gone worse, forever branding the opera box office poison. The eight performance run sent Barber into a creative tailspin and on personal bender.

Curtis Opera Theater and Opera Company of Philadelphia, collaborating for the third time on their ambitious chamber opera series attempt a rescue of the music. It is both scaled down, but highly campy as they seek to restore what does work in the opera. Namely, a flawed, bold operatic experiment from Barber.

The trouble in Egypt is still the same old story, Nile Queen falls for Roman General, the countries vie for power, nothing survives save the asps. Certainly not Shakespeare, in Franco Zefferelli’s filmy libretto, short on plot details and broiled dialogue cycles ‘My man of men‘ is Cleo‘s refrain.

At the Perelman Theater, David Zinn’s understated metallic set frames the tableaux of Roman and Egyptian exotica- from Cleopatra’s gold train that spans the length of the stage (drawn out under a rain of glitter confetti) to the transgender pink drag corsets on her slaves- this A & C is decidedly over the top. In embracing that milieu, OCP-COT unvaults Cleo’s musical treasures, the steel and fantasia in Barber’s score, even the grand scale of its thorniness.

Allison Sanders and Brandon Cedel in the leads, keep this an unfussy love story, even when the music and drama demands gnashing. Theirs is a hot-blooded love affair with arias. Barber’s overlapping singing is smoothly dispatched, helping to keep focus in some narratively sketchy scenes.

Cedel had moments of swagger in the love scenes and Sanders flashed a reluctant diva at times, but mostly they downplayed the drama for musical intimacy, despite the libretto‘s claustrophobia. Cedel and Sander retain a reserve and mystery, good choice when exposition is so clammy. Her voice was cool control especially in the queenly strata, Cedel’s smooth bass-baritone lending virile mystique.

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