Can new Metropolitan Opera boxed set redeem Philly composer's epic flop?

Leontyne Price as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra." (Photo: Metropolitan Opera Archives.)

The Metropolitan Opera has delivered something that many operagoers didn't know they wanted: the recorded truth behind its 1966 first season at Lincoln Center, in the form of a 22-disc boxed set titled The Inaugural Season (List price, $129).

That first year, after decades in a traditional old-world theater where scenery sometimes had to be stored outside in the rain, the Met had upgraded to a gleaming opera house with a forest of chandeliers from Vienna, murals by Marc Chagall, excellent-to-superb acoustics, and enough seats (3,800) to welcome the world.

Yet disaster loomed at the gala opening-night production of Antony and Cleopatra, and nobody suffered more lasting effects than the West Chester-born, Curtis Institute-educated composer Samuel Barber (1910-81).

Barber had enjoyed a blessed relationship with critics, audiences, the Pulitzer Prize committee, and his partner, composer/stage director Gian Carlo Menotti, for decades before the wind shear that greeted Antony and Cleopatra. He never truly recovered.

Only now, in a radio-recorded live performance, can we hear with clarity exactly what happened. Some 50 years later, Barber’s fall from grace is confounding.

Director Franco Zeffirelli probably deserves more of the blame, for his bizarrely stylized costumes and super-ornate production, which broke the stage turntable at one rehearsal, leaving his Cleopatra, sung by Leontyne Price, trapped inside a pyramid. But Barber bore the brunt of it.

The opening-night audience had cheered -- typical of gala occasions -- and Barber sailed for Europe the next day not knowing the world's critics would disagree, vehemently. The event went on to acquire the aura of a legendary disaster.

Barber's alcoholism accelerated. Subsequent compositions from him were few and mostly substandard. In Philadelphia (to which he often returned), he gained a reputation for being a rather unpleasant person. (I interviewed him during this period; he was in good form, claiming that he was giving up composition to take up deep-sea diving.)

When Antony and Cleopatra was revised in 1975, edited by the theatrical master that was Menotti, Barber was reportedly a sad, passive participant, doing what was asked of him and staying in the background while his opera grew smaller and more conventional. Suddenly, the opera had a love duet, the previous absence of which was evidence of Barber’s original, less compromising vision. This version had respectful, even warm, reviews.

My encounters (including a well-staged Lyric Opera of Chicago production in 1991) felt as if the opera's substance was just out of reach. Same thing when Price recorded excerpts from the opera -- in remarkably tame performances.

In this newly digitized Met issue of the unrevised opening night -- in far better sound than the bootleg copies that have graced YouTube -- nothing feels muted or out of reach. This is a big, thorny, noisy operatic beast that commands the stage under the electric conducting of Thomas Schippers.

With the role written in her dark, gutsy lower range, Price makes you feel Cleopatra’s cool, political intelligence -- hardly what the public expected in the wake of Elizabeth Taylor’s film version or from the more demure Barber who composed "Adagio for Strings."

Furthermore, Cleopatra is surrounded by a court of women who suffer no fools -- one of the many strokes of contextual atmosphere that was among the revised version's 10 minutes of cuts in Act I and similar excisions in Act II. Cut orchestral interludes include some of the wildest music Barber wrote -- precedents being lesser-known pieces like "Medea’s Meditation" and "Dance of Vengeance."

You have to wonder why the death scenes of Antony and Cleopatra feel so much more powerful in the original, especially Antony’s, whose self-acknowledged loss of inner nobility puts a pit in your stomach with voice  accompanied only by timpani and a distant, distracted flute accompaniment. One theory: When what comes before is so much more grand, conveying a wider panorama of the time in which it’s set, the downfall is obviously that much more dramatic.

Not everything is great in the original. Barber’s score is held together by a pithy, fanfarelike theme whose varied manifestations aren’t as varied as you’d want in such a huge piece. Too often, Barber uses it like a frontal attack when its best moments are more oblique, like distant smoke signals. I suppose the overall shortening of the opera somewhat addresses that.

But even though the revision makes theatrical sense by cutting extraneous information, opera is not about information. Half the time, you don’t know what an opera is truly telling you until you’ve lived with it a few decades. One never knows what is being lost when the strengths are only vaguely understood. Thus, solving a superficial problem can upset an opera’s more important inner ecosystem.

The chances of a rehabilitation, however, are slim. Antony and Cleopatra is grand opera, with all the budgetary demands that implies. Even successful modern operas such as John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles are absent from the stage for financial reasons.

Also, the taint of disaster is slow to leave. In the previous century, Berlioz's 1838 Benvenuto Cellini had a fate similar to Antony and Cleopatra. Only in recent decades has it gained traction as one of the composer's greatest works.

But the Antony and Cleopatra recording is finally out there. That’s the first step.