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06 April, 2003

Barber's Antony and Cleopatra

Carnegie Hall, 57th St, New York City

6th April 2003

Dear Colleagues,

We were treated to a concert performance of this rare work on a cold Sunday afternoon in New York.

Barber's Antony and Cleopatra is a difficult work which may yet make a come-back after serious revisions by the composer before he died, in collaboration with Menotti. It will benefit greatly from sub-titles which obviously were not there in 1965 when it opened the new Met in such sorry circumstances.

Carol Vaness played Cleopatra while Louis Otley replaced an indisposed Gregg Baker as Marc Antony. Neil Rosenshein took the role of Caesar while Arthur Woodly, a magnificent African American bass took the role of Enobarbus. Charmian was sung by Margaret Thompson. Conductor was Steven Sloane with American Composers Orchestra and New York Concert Singers.

Vaness was in fine voice but looked out of place in a mock-Egyptian hair-do and a golden split leg dress. The performance was partially staged which was also most off-putting. Tender embraces, kneeling and sudden movements across the podium did not add to the drama to my mind. As it was written for Leontyne Price there are haunting lows and sustained highs - possibly also explaining why it has been avoided by opera companies for so long. Rosenshein started out falteringly but reached vocal heights on at least two occasions, reminding us of his substantial powers. He was the only singer not to use the score - his part was not large as much of Caesar's music was apparently jettisoned in the Menotti revisions. Mr Otley sang creditably as a stand-in and made only one or two minor hesitations in his long and demanding title role.

The work has numerous touching and tingling moments but is not exactly my style. Much of it sounds as if it could have been written by Benjamin Britten. The opening chorus is like the Peter Grimes court room scene. One has to warm to a lovely duet which sounds more like Puccini than more modern music. Intriguingly, after the queen's death the chorus broke into fortissimo reminiscent of Mascagni's Iris to end this great tragedy.

According to the program notes, this opera has only had a couple of outings in its 35 year history, including on at the Chicago Lyric. It is certainly more worthy than some other pieces I have seen revived and in a day when the US is increasingly patriotic it will probably happen.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..