Historically Seductive: Massenet's 'Cleopatra'

sophie-koch-250History has always been a favorite subject for drama, and it's hard to think of any historical figure with a more compelling story than Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

For proof of that, we need look no further than the movies, where Cleopatra has been portrayed by a number of superstars in blockbusters dating back nearly a century. In 1917 she was played by a legend of silent movies, Theda Bara. Claudette Colbert was Cleopatra in a 1934 film spectacular directed by another cinematic legend, Cecille B. DeMille. And, perhaps most famously of all, Elizabeth Taylor starred in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1963 version of Cleopatra, alongside Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.

That 1963 film was among the most anticipated, and extravagant films in Hollywood history, and all the elements that make Cleopatra's story such a natural at the movies also make it ideal for opera. Or at least that's how it would seem.

Cleopatra herself was powerful, beautiful, romantic, ruthless and, in the end, tragic. On top of all that, her story takes place amid the splendors of ancient Egypt and Rome. Her romantic conquests included two great leaders of the ancient world: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. As for that relationship with Antony, the two join forces in a glorious but lost cause, and wind up dying together in Cleopatra's own tomb, where she takes own her life with a poisonous snakebite! It's hard to get more operatic than that!

Yet amazingly, while there are plenty of operas about Cleopatra -- and particularly about Cleopatra and Mark Antony -- few if any are regulars in today's opera houses. Handel's "Cleopatra opera," Julius Caesar in Egypt, concentrates more on its title character than on the Queen of Egypt. And the others? Well, there's a 1725 opera called Antony and Cleopatra by Johann Adolph Hasse, along with one from 1775 by Carlo Monza, and another written in 1876 by Lauro Rossi. Not exactly a "who's who" list of composers and their operas.

Yet, it seems inevitable that such an ideally operatic story would have inspired at least one of history's great opera composers -- a composer from the height of the Romantic era, who wore his musical heart on his slave while creating tales of tragic passion, in while lovers abandon any pretense of reason or caution, risking everything simply to be together. And in fact, there was such a composer.

It was Jules Massenet, who immortalized the beautiful and passionate Manon, who also took on what would seem like the perfect operatic storm -- the tale of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and the turbulent relationship that helped change the course of history. Massenet did it in his final opera, a drama that didn't appear on stage until two years after the composer's death.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Massenet's Cléopâtre, the final drama by one France's greatest opera composers, from the Champs-Elysées Theatre, in Paris. Mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch stars in the title role, with baritone Frédéric Goncalves as Mark Antony, in a performance led by conductor Michel Plasson.