Opera Profile: The Two Stories Behind John Adams’ ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

By John Vandevert
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

Premiering at San Francisco Opera just last year, John Adams’ newest opera, “Antony and Cleopatra” brought the story of the ill-fated lovers to the 21st century with a score that echoed the profound feelings each lover had for the other. On the back of previous renditions of the infamous story, such as Samuel Barber’s 1966 version, Jules Massenet’s largely overlooked 1913 opera, and even a Danish opera from 1895 by August Enna, Adams is in good company when it comes to portraying these quasi-folkloric figures on the operatic stage. 

The creation of Adams’ libretto was a collaborative effort, aided by Elkhanah Pulitzer, the opera’s principle director for the premiere, and Lucia Scheckner. Split into two acts, the opera largely follows Shakespeare’s interpretation of the historical story, as told in his 17th-century play of the same name. Described as a ‘problem play,’ a category used for Shakespearian plays that revolve around the ambiguity of tragic and comedic development in relation to complex topics, Adams’ opera compliments Shakespeare’s story by focusing on the taut dynamic between the lovers and Cleopatra’s eventual suicide by snake bite.    

Though considered by some to be too boring—some have even said conventionalin terms of the vocal lines despite its rousing orchestral textures, the opera is nonetheless destined to endure in time and space, already lined up for multiple performances staged across the world, including the Metropolitan Opera. Let us now take a closer look at Adams’ story and compare it with Shakespeare’s version, and explore how the composer echoes the original while incorporating his own reinvention of the tale.

The Two Stories

In Adams’ opera, Act One begins intimately, revealing Egyptian Queen Cleopatra Philopater in her bedroom. She opens the opera on a sharp point, poking fun at Roman General Marc Antony’s ‘Roman wife.’ He reaffirms his love for Cleopatra, but knows he must soon leave her. Emperor Augustus Caesar is irate at Antony’s neglect of his duties, though the tension is briefly abated by Agrippa, friend of Caesar, who proposes Antony marry Octavia the Younger, the emperor’s eldest sister. Antony agrees to this, and when Cleopatra eventually finds out she is justifiably irate. The bad day only gets worse when Antony provokes Caesar into declaring war on him. Feeling both confident and alarmed, Antony is a man caught between two worlds: both the physical worlds of Rome and Egypt, and the metaphysical worlds of duty to one’s country and devotion to one’s love.

Act Two opens with Antony’s failure in battle, while Cleopatra, having listened to a petition written by Caesar switches sides and leaves Antony: an act that enrages the defeated hero. In order to redeem herself in the eyes of Antony, Cleopatra announces to her servants that she has committed suicide. This has a tragic effect, as the dejected Antony wholeheartedly believes the lie and commits suicide himself. Cleopatra, alone and faced with the prospect of being reduced to a vassal trophy of Caesar’s new empire, chooses to instead take her life into her own hands, and dies her now-famous death by coaxing a snake into biting her. 

In Shakespeare’s play, everything is more drawn out and highly detailed. Totalling five acts, the play spends far longer dealing with the internal psychology of Antony and Cleopatra than the two acts that Adams’ opera allows for. In a quick precis; in Act One we see the multiple dimensions of Cleopatra the lover. We witness her deep devotion to Antony and her questioning mindset as to whether he truly loves her as much as she does he. Act Two explores the constant negotiation that Antony must endure as he is repeatedly forced to prioritize his work over his relationship with Cleopatra. As in Adams’ opera, Antony agrees to marry Octavia, to Cleopatra fury. Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Shakespeare raises moral questions as to whether violence for the sake of peace is justified. Act Three depicts the growing feud between Antony and Caesar, while Cleopatra is tempted by the prize of peace on the condition that she give up her attachment to Antony. Antony never grows fond of Octavia, and as a peace offering sends her back to Rome to be with her brother. For a moment, reconciliation between the two factions seems possible. In Act Four the two reluctant armies draw up their battle lines and deliberate confrontation, culminating in the opposing fleets meeting at the Battle of Actium (31 BCE). In the pivotal moment it is revealed that the Egyptian fleet have abandoned Antony to his fate at the hands of Caesar.

This is a moment glossed over in Adams’ rendition: in the opera we only see the battle’s human fallout, not the battle itself, where the ever-victorious Marc Antony is reduced to ignoble loser by the desertion of his Egyptian allies. Antony believes this is a betrayal orchestrated by Cleopatra, who he accuses in his rage of changing sides and allying with Caesar. This fury seals his fate, as Cleopatra flees from him and spreads a false rumour that she has killed herself only to protect herself from Antony. Antony, heartbroken by the news, falls on his sword, being told too late that Cleopatra is in reality alive and well, and had never betrayed Antony. This also differs from Adams’ retelling. In its modern, humanist approach, the opera eschews some romantic ideals for a more pragmatic narrative. In it, Cleopatra is ultimately a monarch in whose hands lie the fate of her country, and she earnestly chooses an alliance with Rome over the fanciful pursuit of her personal love. The short, final Act Five of Shakespeare’s play concerns Cleopatra, who steels her resolve to seek out her own death before it finds her through some other way, and she dies by the now-legendary snake bite.

Though Adams’ version is fleeting in is depiction of the naval engagement that sets the scene for the tragic undoing of the Roman and Egyptian lovers, and experiments with a more prosaic motivation for Cleopatra’s betrayal, the endings are still the same, and just as tragic for our two protagonists. In Shakespeare’s version, Caesar ultimately buries Cleopatra next to Antony to honor her sacrifice. Though this scene is absent from Adams’ more plausible narrative, historical evidence suggests that Augustus Caesar did indeed bury the two tragic lovers side-by-side in a shared mausoleum: a poignant case of truth being more romantic even than fiction.  


This article was updated on 8/3/2023 to specify that Peter Sellars did not have any role in the opera’s creation.


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