Drama of 'Anthony and Cleopatra' was lost in translation

One of the more curious events offered by the Virginia Arts Festival was Friday’s Ferguson Arts Center production of “Anthony and Cleopatra.”

Not the basic play, it blended selected dialogue with Florent Schmitt’s incidental music to the same. Schmitt comes from an associated world with the likes of Faure, Debussy and Ravel, suggesting a lush, sensuous sound, some of which was evident here. He also was influenced by Stravinsky and Scriabin, which added angularity to the score.

He originally wrote a score for ballet sequences in Andre Gide’s 1920 six-hour Paris production of “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Before that score was lost to time, he crafted two orchestral suites from it, each movement reflecting pivotal parts of the play. It is here that the Virginia Symphony’s JoAnn Falletta entered the picture.

Several years ago she discovered the relatively unknown suites and recorded them. Apparently, that stimulated the 2016 joint effort between London’s Globe Theatre and the BBC Orchestra to create a work merging the two resources for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Thus, Bill Barclay, the Globe’s music director, vastly and seriously reduced and reworked the play for five actors and used the two suites to create a dramatic whole. It was subsequently staged in London and the Hollywood Bowl, making the Festival’s presentation a really rare event.

This affair featured the VSO with Falletta on the podium and Barclay in the director‘s chair. Five Boston-linked actors portrayed nine roles, six of which were handled by two actors. Dressed in Elizabethan garb, they performed in front of the orchestra. Unfortunately, the best of intentions fell on shaky ground. Several times the headset mics (for amplification) faltered rendering lines nearly inaudible, which didn’t help the play’s plot progress in this Reader’s Digest version of a complicated story. Plus it wasn’t always clear who was who when one player played four roles. Plus the orchestra often outplayed the actors, all of which clouded continuity and comprehension.

Of the lot, Joel Colodner (as Enobarbus and a clown) provided the most dramatic and sincere reading, delivering his lines with Shakespearean flair and feeling. In fact, his accounting of Cleopatra on her barge was one of the few moments when there was a recognizable connection between poetic beauty in the score and lines. Sadly, while Bill Mootos was a handsome Anthony and Niani Feelings an attractive Cleopatra, they didn’t make a successful match. In fact, there was little warmth to suggest their love was real or worth dying for.

Part of the problem was Feelings’ overly amplified mic which made her high positioned vocal timbre come across sounding cold and shrill. Mootos, on the other hand, had a mic that faltered a number of times. Maybe in trying to overcompensate, even after the mic issue was fixed, he ended up sounding angry, to the point that both of them seemed to yell a lot.

Ivy Ryan was a supportive servant. Daniel Berger-Jones carried out his four roles with earnestness; sadly, his suicide as Eros drew a few laughs. As for Anthony and Cleopatra’s death scene, it died for lack of passion, thus ending the show.

Musically, Schmitt’s six movements were to create reference points in the play’s dialogue to suggest the likes of the sea battle at Actium, Pompey’s camp, Cleopatra’s sensuality, Cleopatra and Anthony’s love and ultimate deaths, and even an orgy-dance. However, the score and its tailored fit for this play didn’t turn out to be all it promised to be.

Not being able to completely follow the play’s action or clearly hear all the lines made it hard to see how most of the music fit. For sure, the orchestra’s solo moments were dramatic and exciting. But what most of those moments represented — no clue.

The London production was praised for its beauty, magic and brilliance. Such qualities didn’t make it across the ocean.

Certainly Schmitt’s score was heard, but compositional details, except for those solo segments, were lacking. His creativity would have been more fully appreciated and rewarding had the two suites been played as a concert piece, with a narrator to provide a link between the score’s six musical segments and the play.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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