Barber opera excerpts prove most heavenly in cosmic CSO program

Fri Nov 22, 2019 at 1:48 pm

By John von Rhein

Sally Matthews performed arias from Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra with Juanjo Mena conducting the CSO Thursday night. Photo:Todd Rosenberg

Any worries that the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would betray any collective fatigue at their first home concert following a two-night Carnegie Hall engagement under music director Riccardo Muti the previous weekend were dispelled by their generally strong showing on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, the podium guest for this weekend’s subscription concerts, laudably elected not to play it safe and standard, apart from treating the audience to a big, familiar symphonic crowd-pleaser, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, as his cosmic closing piece.

Mena devoted the bulk of his program to contemporary and 20th century American works, both of them new to the orchestra’s repertory. Of these, two scenes from Samuel Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra formed the centerpiece, in more ways than one.

Barber’s final opera has enjoyed a spotty track record, at best, since its disastrous premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1966, when his splendid distillation of Shakespeare’s tragedy fell victim to a typically overblown production by Franco Zeffirelli. Despite the extensive revision by Barber and his longtime partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, six years later, the work has yet to secure a foothold in the big-company international repertory – this despite Lyric Opera of Chicago’s having mounted a successful revival in 1991, followed by worthy efforts in New York in 2009, Philadelphia in 2010 and elsewhere. Sadly, Antony’s troubled birth all but stifled Barber’s creative confidence for the rest of his life.

What makes the opera’s general neglect all the more pitiable is that, in its streamlined revision, this is one of the major American operas of the late 20th century: an essentially intimate human drama of Shakespearean lovers caught in a deadly web of sex and politics, wrapped in a score of quite haunting beauty, even eloquence. The music reveals a major composer in twilight, still at the top of his game.

Barber created his Queen of the Nile for Leontyne Price, the great American soprano for whom he collaborated on some of his most beautiful music for the voice over the course of two decades. It is hard to get the lustrous, smoky sound of Price’s utterly distinctive voice out of one’s head when hearing the music he wrote for this artist. But Thursday’s soloist, Sally Matthews, brought alluring vocalism and deep expressive understanding of her own to two of Cleopatra’s key scenes from the opera, “Give me some music” and “Give me my robe.”

This critic had heard a fine performance of this music by Matthews and Mena at the BBC Proms in London in 2018, but their performance here on Thursday was even finer. Looking suitably regal in a glittery-gold, form-fitting gown, the British soprano put her full, vibrant, richly contoured voice fully at the service of text and music. The wide melodic leaps of Barber’s vocal lines held no terrors for her. Cleopatra’s suicidal anguish as she prepared to touch asp to breast came through to poignant effect.

Mena supported his soloist attentively and gave shape to the purely orchestral passages in which big blocks of exotically colored sound give way to exquisite chamber music for individual instruments. Too bad that even with Matthews’ immaculate diction some of the words were obscured by the orchestra; texts were, fortunately, provided in the program book.

The other first of the night was the debut CSO performance of Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by American composer James Lee III. At 44, the Michigan native studied at the University of Michigan and Tanglewood, has won various scholarships and awards, and currently serves on the faculty of Morgan State University in Baltimore. Much of his creative vitality appears to have gone into a string of recent orchestral works including Sukkot, which dates from 2011.

Cast in a tripartite form of seven discrete sections, the 10-minute piece takes part of its title from the Hebrew word for the Feast of Tabernacles, part from the Orion constellation, the only star-cluster mentioned in the Old Testament. Lee’s music amounts to a colorful, exuberant explosion of rhythmic energy, alive with booming, clattery percussion that dissolves into soaring lyricism in the violins. One section is meant to evoke nothing less than the image of the Messiah coming down from heaven, but pastiche rears its dubious head in the final pages, which appear to rip off John Adams’ Short Ride on a Fast Machine.

That said, American orchestras in search of a big, brawny, accessible curtain raiser of recent vintage will want to give the Lee piece a spin. He’s got talent and one hopes to hear more from him. Mena and the CSO kept the excitement level–not to mention the decibel count–high, their performance eliciting a whoop of pleasure from the audience. Lee was present to join in the ovation.

(One must commend the orchestra for providing a forum for American composers of color, a forum that deserves expansion. Lee is scheduled to discuss his new work as part of a Meet the Composer Q&A session preceding the repeat on Saturday night. This CSO African American Network event, free to ticketholders, will take place at 5 p.m. in the 8th floor Club of Symphony Center.)

Holst’s interplanetary suite has survived its exploitation as a hi-fi–then stereo, then digital–blockbuster, not to mention its reinvention in innumerable outer-spacey soundtracks (John Williams, I’m looking at you). But there is much music of quality and high imagination in the British composer’s Greatest Hit, also much pleasure to be derived from performances by virtuoso orchestras like the Chicago Symphony, the only ensembles that should attempt this demanding score.

Mena’s interpretation was uneven, beginning with a brisk “Mars, Bringer of War” that was loud, even assaultive, but lacked a truly menacing edge. (An early entrance by a double bass did not help matters.) “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” also needed a firmer sense of desolation beneath the heavy gait of cellos and basses. Admittedly, balancing the offstage women’s choir against the orchestra in the final section, “Neptune, the Mystic,” is always devilishly tricky for conductors, but surely the women’s voices from the Chicago Symphony Chorus (prepared by Cheryl Frazes Hill) were too loud and not distant-sounding enough–so much for Holst’s magical fade to cosmic nothingness.

Otherwise, Mena nicely evoked the serenity of “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” its atmosphere enhanced by the deft solos of David Cooper, the CSO’s new principal horn, assistant principal cello Kenneth Olsen and other principals. He brought out the sorcerer’s-apprentice flavor of “Uranus, the Magician” well, and “Mercury” was properly fleet and airy. The fabled CSO brass juggernaut came into its own in “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” savoring the big tune as grandly as any British band.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Edman Memorial Chapel, Wheaton College, Wheaton, and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center;; 312-294-3000.

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