Was it the biggest opera fiasco of the 20th century? September 16, 1966, opening night of the brand new Metropolitan Opera House at the nation’s most expensive cultural development site to date, New York’s Lincoln Center. The world premiere of an opera by America’s leading composer (sorry Aaron) Samuel Barber (1910-1981), whose “Adagio” was played at state funerals and other events of national importance almost since its ink dried. Barber was also known for his ability to write modern music that emphasized lyricism, making it easier for most listeners to grasp at first hearing.
Rudolf Bing, the dictatorial director of the Met, commissioned Barber and “Italian spectacular” producer Franco Zeffirelli to create a new opera. They chose a musical setting of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” The star diva: Leontyne Price, then at the apex of her career. What could go wrong?
Apparently, just about everything. The opening night audience, as such tend to be, was more concerned with displaying its fashion and jewelry than listening to a contemporary work, no matter how grand and ornate the stage pictures were. And it was the premiere of the entire opera house, not just an opera. Double jeopardy, one might say.
Zeffirelli, wanting to make use of the enormous technological advantages of the new house such as rotating turntables for the sets, etc., held nothing back. Today such devices are considered standard, practically elementary, but in 1966 . . . Anyway, Price got stuck in one of the ascending pyramidal columns and had to sing while trapped “within” it for an agonizingly long time. Her enormous velvety tone was barely audible. And some of her elaborate overwhelming costumes couldn’t be put on in the time allotted, so she just skipped them and retained the same one when necessary.
Barber was on record as being displeased with the enormity of the spectacle, having envisioned something more “intimate” though just why he would associate intimacy with a 3800 seat opera house, I don’t understand.
At issue also, the musical setting of the words. Shakespeare’s language is so ornate that to further elongate it with music can make a noble line seem mawkish, overdone, or at worst silly. That’s why the Verdi Shakespeare operas work so much better, with their (Italian) libretti, considered by some to be hacking the Bard apart. Emotions are simplified, distilled, and focused so the music may do its work of heightening the words, rather than enervating them.
Barber and Zeffirelli set Shakespeare’s words directly, though they weren’t shy about restructuring the play and mixing in lines from other plays entirely. Interestingly, in 1958 Barber rejected a play by Tennessee Williams for operatic treatment, saying wisely that “the texture of the playwright’s language left no room for music.” Andre Previn fell into this trap with his “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Maybe it was a sentimental attachment to this problematic play that attracted Barber, since his older sister played Cleopatra in a Vassar production years earlier. The conflict between love and power should have provided an ample opportunity for raw, universal emotion to be shown through powerful music. Problem was, Shakespeare “got there” first.
The dismal, not entirely fair reviews really knocked the wind out of Barber, and many think his career never recovered. He did revise the opera heavily nine years later for a Juilliard production. No Zeffirelli spectacle, libretto and direction by Barber’s partner, composer Giancarlo Menotti. Musical revisions that tightened the pace and removed about 50 pages from the piano/vocal score, etc. It was received more favorably, but perhaps “too little, too late” for Barber’s morale.
Today, only two extracts are heard with any regularity: Cleopatra’s two extended arias “Give me some music” and “Give me my robe” which makes her sound like the “give me” girl, doesn’t it? And it never entered the standard repertory, as Bing had so fondly hoped. Despite certain progressive initiatives at the Met, you can be certain that when the current massive Lincoln Center renovation program is finished, there won’t be any “risky” gigantesque premieres by American composers. Those days are over. Where are the “Ghosts of Versailles” for example? Languishing.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs