Opera Profile: Samuel Barber’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

By David Salazar

Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” was supposed to be an opera for the ages.

But it was not to be. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for the opening of its new house at Lincoln Center, the opera’s Sept. 16, 1966, world premiere is widely remembered as a colossal failure, not only because the Franco Zeffirelli production was filled with one technical glitch after another, but because few warmed up to Barber’s score. Leontyne Price was the soprano to world premiere the opera, her association with Barber quite prevalent during that time period. But even the great soprano could not salvage the night.

That failure would haunt the opera thereafter, its place in the standard rep never firmly established and Barber ultimately forced to write a revision with texts by Gian Carlo Menotti (Zeffirelli had written the first version of the libretto, based on Shakespeare’s play).

Short Plot Summary

The opera follows the Bard’s play quite closely with the Roman soldiers, led by Octavius, calling Antony back to Rome. Cleopatra begs him not to leave her but, he obliges Rome and upon arriving there, he is asked to marry Octavia to cement the bonds between him and Octavius.

Cleopatra is none too happy at the betrayal. Battle breaks out as Antony learns that Octavius has broken a peace treaty and returns to Egypt to claim himself and Cleopatra as rulers. The two men prepare for battle with the fate of the Roman Empire hanging in the balance. Cleopatra is asked to join Octavius’ side. He believes that he has been betrayed and they ultimately cause one another’s respective deaths as Octavius claims victory over all.

Watch and Listen

While the Metropolitan Opera recently released a CD recording from the very first performance of the opera, we have included a video production from the Lyric Opera of Chicago starring Catherine Malfitano as Cleopatra.


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