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‘Antony and Cleopatra’ Soars With John Adams’ Tense Delights

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A woman and a man, both in armor, huddle close to each other, looking out toward the camera
Amina Edris and Gerald Finley in the title roles of John Adams' 'Antony and Cleopatra.' (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The Berkeley-based composer John Adams is known for operas about recent events, be it his breakthrough Nixon in China, or its follow-up, The Death of Klinghoffer. So with a world premiere in San Francisco of his new opera, based on the story of Antony and Cleopatra, people may wonder: how will this distinctly modern composer tackle one of the world’s oldest and most famous love stories?

The answer depends on just how much you associate love with light, happy melodies and swooning duets, largely absent in Antony and Cleopatra. The opera, which opened Sept. 10, leans into the story’s political battles rather than the romance between the two title characters, played by Anima Edris and Gerald Finley. Their romantic chemistry is reflected less on stage than in the text, adapted from Shakespeare—and even then, their love seems to blossom more in death than in life.

But for those who see Antony and Cleopatra as a tragedy, or an epic of the Roman empire, this opera delivers in spades. Adams’ rich score is filled with tension, which culminates in a fiery speech by Paul Appelby as Caesar, accompanied by a large choir. The set design opens and closes like a medium-format camera around the stage, whisking the audience back and forth between Rome and Egypt. At one point, characters hover above the stage, appearing to walk in the clouds, and Adams’ use of repetition and rhythm drives the action.

And, at the end, we get Cleopatra, alone in anguish of her love for Antony: “His delights were dolphin-like,” she sings. “They showed his back above the element they lived in.” Adams’ adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra has several of these extraordinary, dolphin-like delights, and it’s worth seeing before it heads to the Met in New York.

‘Antony and Cleopatra’ runs through Oct. 5th at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Details here.

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