Taught by Massenet and Fauré, a contemporary of Ravel and Debussy, a close friend – for a while – of Stravinsky, the long-lived and prolific composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was at the heart of French music and the French cultural establishment during the first half of the last century. His music now hovers in obscurity, and the composer seems to be remembered more for his extreme right-wing views – between the Wars, in the 1930s, he was pro-Hitler and anti-Jewish – and for a particularly toxic rant against Kurt Weill, and he became too hot to handle.
The 1920 production in Paris of Shakespeare’s love tragedy was directed by André Gide (who made the translation), with incidental music (for large orchestra) composed by Schmitt, and the six-hour marathon was bankrolled by Ida Rubinstein, who played Cleopatra.
This Barbican Centre event, from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Shakespeare’s Globe, used the two Suites that Schmitt compiled, with the music interleaved with Bill Barclay’s drastic reduction of the play, and the huge cast reduced to five actors – no Octavius, Lepidus or Octavia – in traditional costume, acting in front of the orchestra and in the front stalls. The result was a bit of a canter, to put it mildly, and the billing for the event misleadingly gave prominence to the two Suites of three sections each. The acting was so intense and the extracts so dramatic that Schmitt’s music inevitably was pushed into a secondary, enhancing role, like film-music that knows its place.
It is, though, quite a score, perfectly capable of standing on its own, with Schmitt’s oriental and Russian (especially Rimsky-Korsakov) proclivities declared in sumptuous orchestration to fit the broad, bold tone-paintings contained in the six separate pieces – ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Pompey’s Camp’, ‘Battle of Actium’, ‘Night at the Queen’s Palace’; ‘Orgy and Dances’ and ‘Cleopatra’s Tomb’.
Sakari Oramo’s stylish conducting and the BBCSO’s glamorous, primary-colour playing made the big set pieces come vividly to life, and the two title-roles in a love-story that creates a trail of deception, jealousy, misunderstanding and betrayal stepped out in all their deluded, tragic grandeur. Enobarbus’s hushed description of the arrival of Cleopatra’s barge was complemented by Schmitt’s sinuous depiction of the Serpent of the Nile in all her erotic splendour, and the music for the final scene, ‘Cleopatra’s Tomb’, matched the tragedy of the lovers’ suicides, although the rubbery asps Janie Dee’s Cleopatra attached to her breast encouraged a few sniggers. Simon Paisley Day and Janie Dee made the excerpts flow with electricity, and Brendan O’Hea was a powerful Enobarbus, who kills himself out of despair for Antony’s misplaced passion.