Florent Schmitt’s incidental music to Antoine et Cléopâtre, Op. 69 is one of the composers most intriguing works – a bright star in the constellation of sumptuous “orientalist” compositions created by this French master.
The music was composed for André Gide’s 1920 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with the role of Cleopatra performed by the celebrated dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein. It was Rubinstein who, after first approaching Igor Stravinsky to create the music for the production, ultimately chose to award the commission to Florent Schmitt.
It was a personal and artistic relationship that would last for more than 20 years, beginning with Rubinstein starring in Schmitt’s most famous ballet La Tragédie de Salomé in 1919 and culminating with the two artists collaborating on yet another “orientalist” extravaganza, Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, in 1938.
The 1920 production of Antony & Cleopatra was not a success, racking up a mere six performances before disappearing from the stage. But Schmitt’s music was universally praised by the press. The composer, convinced as well that the score was worth preserving, prepared two orchestral suites out of the incidental music which were premiered later in the year by Camille Chevillard and the Lamoureux Orchestra.
Despite its obvious musical attractions, Antony & Cleopatra hasn’t achieved widespread awareness or popularity – at least not until recently. The first commercial recording was released only in the late 1980s (a recording that didn’t have much circulation outside of Europe), but in recent years two other fine recordings have been made: one with Jacques Mercier and the Lorraine National Orchestra (on the Timpani label) and the other with JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (on NAXOS). These newer recordings have given music lovers much more access and exposure to Schmitt’s inventive score.
And now the music has migrated back into the concert hall as well. In 2010 and 2015, JoAnn Falletta presented it with her two American orchestras (the Virginia Symphony as well as the BPO), and this year Antony & Cleopatra was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London.
There’s a twist, too: The 2016 productions featured not only Florent Schmitt’s music, but also excerpts from Shakespeare’s play as performed by leading actors from Shakespeare’s Globe.
The new production consisted of 90 minutes of music and words as prepared by Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Smitten by the dramatic sweep and power of Schmitt’s score, Barclay’s vision was to “re-imagine” Shakespeare’s play by integrating music with words and presenting it in a concert venue. Barclay chose the venerable Shakespearean director Iqbal Khan to oversee the production.
Unsuccessful in finding any surviving documentation of the original Rubinstein/Gide/Schmitt Paris production, in the words of Bachtrack music critic and editor Mark Pullinger, “Barclay unpicked the stitching [of the suites], reordered and sewn it back together to accompany a filleted version of the play.”
A “first run” of a portion of the resulting production was presented at the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Bramwell Tovey in August 2016. Then the full version was presented in its entirety in October by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The London event earned high praise, with critics noting the “superb synchronicity between actors and orchestra … to form a coherent musico-dramatic whole … fascinating – every second of it” (The Guardian). The Financial Times wrote of the production, “Sensuous and exotic … and imaginative stage direction featuring rarely heard music.”
To the good fortune of music lovers everywhere, in late November an audio broadcast recording of the Barbican presentation was uploaded on the BBC Radio3’s website, where it will remain available to hear until the end of the year.
Upon listening to that broadcast, I was mightily impressed with the successful integration of words and music. I contacted Bill Barclay to learn more about the process he used to build the production, and he generously provided insights into how the production came together in both Los Angeles and London. Highlights from our discussion are presented below:
PLN: How did the Florent Schmitt/Antony & Cleopatra project come about? Was it your “brainchild”?
BB: Sakari Oramo, the very fine Finnish conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was initially drawn to the music and wished to make a recording of it. Paul Hughes, the CEO of that orchestra, got in touch to see if the Globe wished to present Antony & Cleopatra as part of the global celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. As director of music for the Globe, I ended up fielding that request.
I had never heard the piece, and I had never known much of anything about Florent Schmitt, either. So we have Sakari to thank for this entire odyssey of the past year.
PLN: You presented two productions — one at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in August and one at the Barbican Centre in London in October. How were the two productions similar, and how were they different?
BB: We simultaneously had an opportunity to collaborate with the Hollywood Bowl for the same reason – the big Shakespeare anniversary. Rehearsing a whole production with the caliber of talent that would have represented the Globe at its best is expensive; the only way to do either project was to do both of them, and with the same actors.
However, we couldn’t do a whole evening of Florent Schmitt at the Hollywood Bowl, which wanted two performances in a venue of 17,500 seats. We needed to make that program more “populist” somehow – yet I still wanted to include the Schmitt because by now I believed in its power and had fallen in love with the idea of presenting it with actors and a full orchestra.
So the first half of the Bowl’s program was an edited Antony & Cleopatra. In terms of concert pieces inspired by Shakespeare, you could say on one end is Schmitt – unfamous and unsung. What’s the opposite? Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet. Once I had that balancing act, I sought to make them stitch together.
I noticed that Schmitt had composed his work in 1920 – the same year that the Bowl site had its first concert. I looked at what else had been created that year and found Korngold’s wonderful Much Ado About Nothing score.
Now I had a new “meta-narrative” for the Bowl: one of lovers aging in reverse. We’d start with the mature strife of Antony and Cleopatra, then enjoy the mid-career bickering of Beatrice and Benedict, and finally find ourselves in the searing purity of Romeo and Juliet.
In this way, the program found its own shape, and it appealed on several levels at once.
PLN: The Schmitt score began as part of André Gide’s 1920 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play for Parisian audiences, but the composer also published the music as two concert suites. What was the process you undertook to take Schmitt’s music, “re-adapt” it, and dramatize it for today’s audiences?
BB: This was a long, difficult, but ultimately enjoyable process. It began with wondering where in the world were Schmitt’s original scores? My French is shockingly bad, but nonetheless I spoke with several people at BNF [Bibliothèque National de France] and the music publisher Durand in Paris, trying to find out if anyone knew where Schmitt’s original music was – or at least his notes. No one did. Apparently the only document anyone had from the six-hour Gide production was a 30-second fanfare written by hand.
So eventually I realized that I had to go it alone, with just the concert suites as a guide. From there in a way, I’m embarrassed to say, I started with my favorite parts of Shakespeare’s play and the parts of the suites that could sustain someone speaking with them.
A lot of the Schmitt material couldn’t be cut or rearranged, however, and there are many sections where there is clearly no room for anyone to speak anything – least of all Shakespeare’s verse, which is pretty dense. But I had a list of possible places for melodrama, and a document of bare-bones “greatest hits” from Shakespeare’s play.
Then I started marrying bits together; could I get this gorgeous speech over this sumptuous bit of music? No, I would have to cut either the music or the text – so I did.
Then, what else did I need? A bit of plot here to stitch these successful movements together, then after talking over the orchestra a bit too much I needed to just let them play and not get in the way anymore – or I worried the orchestra would get uncomfortable, relegated to just background music.
It was a huge balancing act.
Also, I was creating two different adaptations for two different conductors, venues and orchestras. How was I going to do that without messing with the actors’ heads? That was the biggest challenge, since the two adaptations also needed to be similar enough for the actors, so they didn’t have to relearn it.
I wasn’t sure all these factors were actually possible, and there were times I had to hide the secret that I was sure they weren’t. But I kept at it.
PLN: Who collaborated with you on the project in terms of producing the event, preparing the partitions for the actors and musicians, and in other ways?
BB: I ended up shouldering much of those responsibilities. The library departments at both orchestras were lifesavers, however. I can’t even begin to articulate how supportive and brilliant they were – particularly the Los Angeles Philharmonic staff members who were dealing with the premiere.
I prepared all the materials for the actors: scripts, recordings, voiceovers, private consultations, continual new drafts. I had wonderful help in Jess Lusk, the artistic coordinator for the Globe who produced these assets with me. Eventually I had my fabulous stage manager, Lucy Taylor, who took over the burden of the logistics.
But for a long while, it was just me.
PLN: The Hollywood Bowl event featured the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Sir Bramwell Tovey, whereas in London it was the BBC Symphony under the direction of Sakari Oramo. How did these two conductors become involved in the project? Were they familiar with Schmitt’s incidental music previously?
BB: Unlike Sakari, Bramwell was relatively new to this rare piece. He found it extremely compelling, though clumsily written in places. He’s right; Schmitt’s style of orchestration is completely his own. You have to get in his head to figure out what he’s doing.
The BBC Symphony had four times the rehearsal time — that’s government subsidy for you. Sakari, who sponsored the whole collaboration, was as familiar and slick with the music as you’d imagine; he’d been preparing to record it, after all.
Bramwell I learned so much from: watching him work and seeing him handle this challenge so quickly. He had a much harder task, you see: Schmitt, Korngold, Berlioz, Nino Rota, Tchaikovsky. He came off the podium on the first night and said, “I feel like I just conducted the Ring!” It was grueling. And he had had only one rehearsal with the orchestra before the dress! It all felt a bit crazy.
I will owe him forever for that. I had selected the program for him, and I think he was conducting Boy George the night before our rehearsal. There’s just no time in the USA in a summer festival program to fully grasp a complicated task like this. I had made something a bit too challenging.
But everyone rose to occasion. Bramwell is one of the most astonishing musicians I’ve ever met. And so is Sakari. They are both so smooth, so accomplished, so light-hearted and beautiful men. I have learned a tremendous amount from them.
PLN: What were your impressions of Schmitt’s score when you first heard the music? How would you characterize its style? Did you listen to all three of the commercial recordings that exist (Segerstam, Mercier, Falletta)?
BB: I stuck with JoAnn Falletta’s very fine recording of the piece because the tempi were the best, in my opinion. She and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra had clearly worked on the drama of the music, which I felt would inspire the actors.
There is also great clarity in the voicings on the Falletta recording so I could say to an actor, for example, “Listen to the harp glissando here – that’s your cue.”
The other two recordings are also good, but too fast or too slow in places. I was trying to find something that wouldn’t put us too far off-base with either orchestra.
It turned out Sakari wanted to play things faster in the end than I had predicted, but we were able to work that out.
As for Schmitt’s music, the first time I heard it I thought of Ravel — but on steroids! I also thought of the Elizabeth Taylor film Cleopatra. The music is so deco, and a bit noir, and Stravinskian – along with bits of Debussy and the romantic pomposity of Richard Strauss.
I love all this music: Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy. Why did Schmitt not merit similar fame? It took me awhile to figure out why no one knew about him and his music when it was so rich and so brilliant. I still don’t know entirely why.
PLN: Personally, what have you found to be the most rewarding aspects of this project?
BB: Bramwell, Sakari, Iqbal Khan, the phemonenal director who was a lifeline for me, and of course the actors – it’s all about relationships. I love the people who work for both orchestras and there are too many of them to name. They love what they do and I thank God for that. I cherish the times we had building this, and the tremendous feeling of satisfaction seeing it “wow” our audiences.
It’s always the people and the final moments for me.
PLN: Is this sort of adaptation something new for Shakespeare’s Globe, or have initiatives like this happened before?
BB: We’ve never done anything quite like this before. We’ve integrated with music loads and loads – productions with the English Concert, Royal Opera, Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment, the Sixteen, etc. We’ve become good at that.
But not fully symphonic works on this scale – and not outside of the Globe’s performance venue.
PLN: Please tell us briefly about your personal background. How did you come to Shakespeare’s Globe, and what are some of the major productions you have put on there as music director?
BB: I’m a composer, actor and director. Jack of some, master of none. It might make me a fitting M.D. for the Globe with its abundance of moving targets — but who knows!
My musical taste is omnivorous: I’m equally at home with medieval music or jazz. Increasingly it’s all starting to feel like one big happy gamut for me. There’s so much borrowing, and so many crossover lessons between different centuries and genres. I love it all.
I’ve never been able to choose in my life what to focus on, so I’m lucky to work somewhere that wants me to focus on lots of changing things all the time. I’ve composed for the Globe, including Hamlet which toured to 197 countries, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo & Juliet and more. I program concerts. I coach singers. I try to get my own creative work done, but typically there isn’t the time. My actor training comes to bear all the time, interestingly; I love working with the actors.
If you mean, “How does an American come to be the director of music at the Globe?”, I have no idea! I was hired initially to compose, and then they offered me the full-time gig. Sometimes I suppose your destiny finds you.
PLN: What other noteworthy music-related projects are in the pipeline for you at Shakespeare’s Globe?
BB: We’re about to remount All the Angels: Handel’s First Messiah at the Globe this winter. That is a collaboration with the Sixteen, the best chorus in the world in my opinion.
I’m working on a record label for the Globe I’ve just launched, called Globe Music. We have two releases out so far and they’re selling – that’s the good news!
Also, I’ll be working on a new concert series this coming summer that we’re calling Indian Summer, and I’m excited to collaborate with some more South Asian musicians this year.
I’ve been working to bring Yo-Yo Ma to the Globe for four years now. I can’t announce anything definitive yet, but … we shall see. I’m such a huge fan of his Silk Road Ensemble.
PLN: Having heard the Antony & Cleopatra adaptation broadcast on BBC Radio3 this month, I was so impressed with how it came across even without experiencing it in person, and I can recognize its fine potential for being presented by other groups. Are there any plans to produce this adaptation in other venues?
BB: None yet, although JoAnn Falletta has expressed interest to use the adaptation, and for my money it should be hers already. She was my inspiration and I hope she feels it’s as much hers as mine.
No one else has leapt to the fore yet; it’s Schmitt, remember. Unsubsidized orchestras aren’t guaranteed to make their money back with a huge production on the back of a composer not known for getting butts in seats.
I’m not at all sure what will happen to the adaptation, but I do hope to publish it.
PLN: Do you have any other information or insights you would like to share about Antony & Cleopatra?
BB: When we speak of Shakespeare, we so often talk about the Top Ten: Midsummer, Macbeth, Hamlet, Merchant, Henry V, Twelfth Night, Much Ado, As You Like It, Othello, Caesar. But Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays, and all of them have their merits.
Indeed, all of them have Shakespeare’s uncanny knack for articulating the timeless and universal aspects of our shared human condition. A few – Two Gents, Two Noble Kinsmen, the Henry VI’s – may not be so suitable for concert theatre. But we should be bold – and dig deep – to uncover the gems that have been lying longest on the floor of the deep.
For the next several weeks, the BBCSO/Globe production of Antony & Cleopatra will be available to hear on the BBC Radio3 website. You can access it here.
Anyone listening to the performance will surely recognize the power and effectiveness of Bill Barclay’s adaptation … and for that reason, we can only hope that other arts organizations will choose to present it to more audiences around the world.