SCENE 1: Cleopatra’s bedroom in Alexandria. Antony is barely recovered from the previous night’s festivities. She taunts him about his Roman wife Fulvia and needles him repeatedly about “the scarce-bearded Caesar.” Realizing he must temporarily return to Rome, Antony affirms his love for her, to which she responds with scorn and self-pity.
SCENE 2: In Rome Caesar voices his disgust for Antony’s shirking of duties in Egypt while he, Caesar, has to deal with a mounting insurrection. Antony arrives, greeted by a chilly, annoyed Caesar. A heated argument ensues. Agrippa makes a surprise proposal: that Antony marry Octavia, Caesar’s sister, who has recently become a widow. To everyone’s astonishment Antony agrees.
Enobarbus describes the fantastic scene when Antony first met Cleopatra in Cydnus, her glamorous arrival, dressed as Aphrodite, on her barge with its perfumed, purple sails, and her irresistible magnetism (“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”)
SCENE 3: Back in Alexandria Cleopatra lounges by the pool, pining away theatrically for Antony. Eros arrives with news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Cleopatra erupts in a rage. Unwilling to hear the truth she continues to ask the same question, “Is he married?”
SCENE 4: Antony, humiliated by Caesar and forced to move to Athens in order to isolate him and minimize his influence, resolves to make preparations for war against him. Now officially Antony’s wife, Octavia voices her frustration in being caught in the middle of the two men she loves. She must choose between her husband and her brother. Perhaps she already senses Antony will abandon her.
An infuriated Caesar receives the news that Antony and Cleopatra are back together again and behaving in flagrant disregard of Rome, Antony “bestowing” Cyprus, Lydia, Syria to her as if he had the power to do so. Caesar is interrupted by the surprise appearance of his pregnant sister Octavia, who has fled back to Rome. Insulted now two-fold, Caesar declares war against Antony.
SCENE 5 (The Battle of Actium): Despite the fact that his navy is cobbled together from inexperienced sailors and inadequate vessels, Antony is exuberant, savoring the return of his long-lost military prowess. His pride is such that he believes he can win any contest. Cleopatra has provided sixty of her own Egyptian warships.
The naval battle goes badly for Antony, and at a critical moment Cleopatra inexplicably recalls her ships. Worse still, Antony draws back his navy and flees, following hers. The result is catastrophic.
Alone on the deck of his ship, Antony rues his fascination with Cleopatra and blames her as well as himself for the catastrophic outcome of the battle. (“All is lost! This foul Egyptian has betrayed me.”)
SCENE 1: Returned to Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra replay the devastating lost sea battle. She is contrite for having withdrawn her ships from the battle, never having suspected he would follow her. His military power, he says, has been neutered by his love for her. He will now have to send entreaties to the young Caesar, a galling humiliation for Antony, the once celebrated warrior.
In Rome Caesar reads petitions from both Antony and Cleopatra, both bowing to his authority and begging his mercy. He orders Agrippa to go to Alexandria and convince Cleopatra to abandon Antony.
Agrippa, now in Alexandria, meets alone with Cleopatra to present Caesar’s proposal. She responds ambiguously while Agrippa flamboyantly kisses her hand. Antony, having observed this, interrupts and orders Agrippa to be whipped. In a blistering diatribe, Antony unloads on Cleopatra—“the false soul of Egypt”-- accusing her of duplicity and lack of faith in him. Charmian urges her queen to flee to safety in the monument (a fortified tower).
Scene 2: Caesar gives a rousing speech to the populace, proclaiming Rome’s absolute dominance over the known world. A chorus of “vox populi” hail his ascendance. This signals the end of the Republic and with it, the rise of the Roman Empire and Caesar’s transformation to Emperor Augustus.
Scene 3: Cleopatra, returned to her court, bids her maid Iras to go to Antony and inform him that she, Cleopatra, has committed suicide out of remorse. It is a ruse on her part, intended to recapture his attention. But Antony believes this false information and, in despair, orders his loyal servant Eros to help him commit suicide. Eros refuses, killing himself instead, forcing Antony to carry out the act alone. But Antony bungles. Charmian arrives, is shocked to see him writhing in agony and tells him that Cleopatra is indeed still alive. Cleopatra, up to now afraid to leave the security of the monument, is unable to resist coming to Antony. She rushes to his side in a state of extreme remorse and despair. With great effort the women carry his heavy, nearly lifeless body up the stairs to the safety of the monument. He is failing and she is beside herself, (“Noblest of men, wil’t thou die? Hast thou no care of me?”) Antony dies in her arms.
Scene 4: A triumphant Caesar dispatches Maecenas to go to Cleopatra and offer official forgiveness, although his ulterior motive is to exhibit her in Rome as a victory trophy. There is now no hope of escape for Cleopatra. Maecenas arrives in Alexandria with Caesar’s patronizing message. (“Be of good cheer. You’ve fallen into a princely hand; fear nothing.”) But Roman soldiers suddenly seize Cleopatra, who reacts by attempting to stab herself. Maecenas orders them to release her, but not before he admits to Cleopatra that Caesar indeed will parade her in humiliation through the streets of Rome.
Cleopatra commands her women to bring her finest clothes, her crown and her jewels. A peasant brings a basket that contains several poisonous asps. Each of the women lies back and applies an asp to her body. Cleopatra imagines she hears Antony call. (“I see him rouse himself to praise my noble act. I hear him mock the luck of Caesar.”)
“richly evocative, and eminently singable”
“Adams’s sound world built to moments of thrilling intensity.”
San Francisco Classical Voice
“Adams’s score is a miraculous summation of the best of his work over the last 30-plus years. The syncopation, swirling winds, ominous brass, and sinister percussion are all characteristic.”
"finely wrought, fiercely expressive ... an unmistakable personal voice"
"The richer the language, the stronger Adams’s response ... The collision with Shakespeare appears to have been inevitable."
Wall Street Journal
“The orchestration is inventive and encyclopedic; the sprawling dramaturgy well-corralled; the text setting clear.”
"This opera delivers in spades."
“constant buzz of tense action … ever more inventive orchestral writing”
San Francisco Chronicle
“some of the most radiantly beautiful music in the composer’s catalog”
“theatrical grandeur blended with expressive intimacy in perfectly judged proportions”
“The music is rich, evocative and full of intricately crafted detail (Shakespeare’s famous invocation of Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” is too apt to resist applying here as well).”