This is one of the greatest "failure" operas of the 20th century. Written for the opening of the new Met at Lincoln Center, the opera was in some ways overshadowed by the occasion, and while a triumph with the opening night audience, it was a critical failure. This reputation has followed it ever since, even with the massive overhaul that Barber gave it before he died. It's a real shame, since this is a jewel of 20th century opera, if not a diamond, than at least an emerald.
The opera still suffers from libretto problems. In many ways, it would have been better for Barber to attempt something on the scale of Les Troyens...the subject calls for it and Barber would have been up to the challenge. He has a Verdian sweep and sense of scale. Some of the chorus scenes can veer toward the "movie music" cliches of Egypt and Rome. Listen especially to the instrumental passages in Cleopatra's first act aria "Give Me Some Music". And yet, despite this, the aria is lovely and highly successful. It is even more adventurous harmonically than Vanessa, and yet never looses it's melodic drive. Contrary to other reviewers, I don't belive that the recit sections are dry. I think that, rather, they are dramatic and beautifully constructed. And Barber is not afraid to let his melodies soar in solo and ensemble work. The second act love duet is ravishing. Barber also has a great sense for orchestral color. The death of Anthony, accompanied by just timpani and flute, is spellbinding in it's simplicity.
The writing for the voices is stunning. Cleopatra is a marvelous role, and shows that it was inspired by it's star, Leontyne Price. Price never lost faith in the work, and sung "Bring Me My Robe" at her farewell concert from the Met. The role is majestic, dramatic and full of lovely melody. Anthony also has wonderful moments, particularly his suicide scene. The smaller roles are less well graced, but Caesar gets a few juicy lines before the show is over.
The recording is pretty good. It is taken from a live 1983performance at the Spoletto Festival in Italy. It's hard to review the performance, as there are not many comparisons. All of the singers are young, and most have not gone on to have really top knotch careers. Ester Hinds sings Cleopatra with power, but her diction leaves much to be desired. She cannot compare to the recorded excerpts that Leontyne Price has left behind. One wishes that Ms. Price had had an opportunity to record the entire work. That would have been stunning. Jeffrey Wells as Antony is much better, but still not a distiguished singer. Eric Halfvarson as Enobarbus is in the mold of the great Verdi Baritones, but doesn't get much meaty to sing. And the recording is marred slightly by stage noise, inevitable when you are dealing with a live performance, but unfortunate anyway.
All in all, this is an opera that rewards repeated listening. And one that should be revived.