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Monotheism mit Marianne

MonoPhilip Glass is indisputably one of the most prolific composers of the last half century, yet none of his more than 20 operas has found a place in the standard repertoire.  Arguably, Akhnaten comes closest. 

Glass’s first three operas formed his “Portrait Trilogy” consisting of Einstein on the Beach (1975), Satyagraha (1979) and Akhnaten (1983).  Einstein, composed for Glass’s ensemble of six musicians, is a challenge for opera companies, performers (mostly dancers), and audiences with its elaborate scenic requirements and running time of five hours without a pause.  The minimalism of Satyagraha, essentially an oratorio scored only for strings and woodwinds, can grown tiresome.

Akhnaten, the story of the pharaoh initially known as Amenhotep IV, is by far Glass most conventional opera, and his first composed for a full orchestra.  In the early 1980s, it won acclaim in Stuttgart (where it premiered), Houston, and at New York City Opera.  This week’s performance comes from the English National Opera earlier this year and stars North Carolina native countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role.

I’d venture to say that Akhnaten is the Glass opera most likely to attract seasoned both opera fans and neophytes, with its lush orchestrations, solid linear narrative, and dancelike rhythms.  In fact, Jerome Robbins utilized an orchestral transcription of the orgiastic march from the funeral of Amenhotep’s father as one of three sections of his 1983 ballet Glassworks, regularly performed by dance companies around the world from New York City Ballet to the Wiener Staatsballett.

Philip Glass: Akhnaten

English National Opera
Karen Kamensek, conductor
March 2016

Akhnaten – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Nefertiti – Emma Carrington
Queen Tye – Rebecca Bottone
Horemhab – James Cleverton
Aye – Clive Bayley
High Priest of Amon – Colin Judson
The Scribe – Zachary James
Bekhetaten – Clare Eggington
Meretaten – Alexa Mason
Maketaten – Rosie Lomas
Ankhesenpaaten – Anna Huntley
Neferneferuaten – Katie Bray
Sotopenre – Victoria Gray

  • I’d say an argument could be made that Glass’ “In the Penal Colony” is on its way to becoming a standard “contemporary” work for smaller opera companies.

    • redbear

      A few years ago, the Lyon opera staged this in an actual prison, which was just finished but not yet open for business.

      • It’s highly portable, is being done all over. Glass refers to it as a “pocket opera”, has followed up with “The Trial” (2014).

        • chicagoing

          I clicked on the Chicago Classical Review site just now and found an entry posted on Saturday entitled, Chicago Fringe Opera delivers a powerful staging of Glass’s ” Penal Colony”. Two more performances this weekend.

          • chicagoing

            Correction to the above. The six performance run ended on Sunday, but this did bring to my attention a local opera company that I was unaware of.

    • la vociaccia

      Satyagraha is becoming pretty hot in Russia.

    • guy pacifica

      Another very stage-worthy Glass opera is Orphée, one of his “chamber operas” that can be easily mounted with limited forces at smaller houses. I saw it at Portland Opera some years ago and found it very compelling.

  • bronzino

    JML, thank you for a chance to hear a new interpretation of this compelling opera so as to compare it with previous examples. Now, we were weened on the Stuttgart recording where the repetitions/triads (especially in the prologue) were hypnotic/mezmorizing as compared to the plodding that we hear in this ENO broadcast. And the poet/narrator in the 1987 recording had no reason to shout the words--listen to the weight and the self-assured majesty as he SPITS out the words ‘stagger’ and ‘hell-hounds’ and ‘locked’:

    The majesty + hypnotism + countertenor in this work’s style are a great example of the ‘form follows function’ concept in that the viewer/listener is tranported back to an unimaginably foreign/unearthly period in ancient history SO very different from our own.

    We look forward to listening to the rest of your selection later in the day.

    (By the way, just so your readers are not mislead, the orchestra is ALMOST ‘full’--the violins were eliminated.)

  • gustave of montreal

    Bad start, I hear 2 notes repeated for 3 hours. Prolific composer perhaps but how dull. Lala lala lala lala lala lala.

    • Bad start: I hear mindless parroting of the same pointless and superficial criticism aimed at Glass for decades now. If you’re going to complain about lack of creativity, you’d best not do so in cliches..

      • gustave of montreal

        Je déteste la musique de Glass, un point c’est tout.

    • warmke

      You discount yourself as a judge of any music if you can’t even correctly count the number of notes in a sequence. The Funeral scene is still one of the more exciting and grand scenes in contemporary opera.

      On another note, I’m grateful for the posting, if only to hear Kamensek conduct, it’s quite articulate and driven. I’ve heard about her for years hit never had the chance until now. Casting isn’t the luxury casting of the Met’s Satyagraha broadcast, but it’s interesting to hear how much more comfortable singers seem to find the idiom.

  • grimoaldo

    I remember very vividly seeing the first ENO production of Akhnaten, years ago, as soon as the music started I was reminded of my favourite film score of my favourite film, Vertigo, the brilliant opening credit sequence with hypnotic arpeggios by Bernard Herrmann

    I was stunned by the funeral music with drums onstage,which begins about 12:30 on JML’s recording. It was the first Glass opera I ever saw and I couldn’t believe how long that sequence went on, but after a few minutes I decided I didn’t care if it went on forever. I have listened to that sequence many many times since then.
    I was also amazed that the singers could memorise that very repetitive music,it still boggles my mind to think how hard it must be to learn it,it isn’t just the exact same thing over and over but with little variations.

    • Exactly: how do they do it? I wondered the same about the dancers, too, in Einstein on the Beach.

      • Those “little variations”, I suspect, are key. I tend to think of Philip Glass as being a French composer, in the same way that Copland was strongly influenced by the French aesthetic of his time: strip down the musical argument so that new details “tell”, have maximum impact. There is a quotation buried somewhere in Howard Pollack’s biography of Copland where the composer points out a single note in a score and proudly announces “THAT is the note that cost.” In the same sense, Glass -- for long stretches of his creative work -- is a composer of “Le note juste”. Each melodic variation, each reconfiguration of the harmonic structure, each rhythmic gear shift, each change in orchestration, registers cleanly. If you understand these variations, understand how they unfold in a dynamic musical process, then internalizing the music shouldn’t be too difficult.

        (That said, PG himself is not immune to making mistakes himself during performance….)

        • Dawn Fatale

          Interesting point about Copland and Glass being ‘French’ composers. I think a lot of this has to do with the extensive studies they both had with Nadia Boulanger. Glass and Copland both cite her as a critical influence on their development as composers.

          • Indeed. Nadia Boulanger was a forceful exponent of what Cocteau called the style dépouillé.

      • Howling in Tune

        I remember an interview with one of the Einstein tour’s cast members. She said that memorizing was very difficult until she got movement instructions from Robert Wilson. Once she had physical movements to pair with the words and notes, memorizing the whole thing became much easier.

  • Thank you for this, Marianne. I’ve never heard Akhnaten and I like most other Glass works that I’ve heard, from his film scores to Satyagraha which I’ve seen on PBS three times and enjoyed every time.

  • redbear

    I was particularly swept along by Glass’ “Les Enfants terrible” (after a Cocteau story) which I saw in Bordeaux. It is scored for three pianos and I think is on DVD.

    • I felt privileged, honestly, to be able to see Einstein at the Châtelet. And though you could go out and come back in if you wanted, neither of us was inclined to budge.

      • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

        At most of the performances of “Einstein on the Beach” which I attended at BAM,I remained in my seat for the whole show (with a hip flask of bourbon and some spectacular brownies).

        • I had less foresight but I’m used to dining after the opera, i.e. late.

          • Of course, all of us regular opera-goers have cast-iron buttocks after so many Rings and Parsifals and Tristans…

        • williams

          Ah! Revered Maiden Marianne! You are a girl after mine own heart. I wield a flask between visits to the Parterre level bar and if you are referencing a particular recipe of “spectacular” brownies…yum!

  • One of my favorite people, Nicholas Tamagna, a fine countertenor, sang Akhnaten recently in Australia. I wish it had been broadcast. When Satyagraha was done at the Met with Richard Croft a few years back, I listened to it during an Amtrak trip from NYC to Washington. It was like meditating for three hours. It was gorgeous and transcendental.

  • Ilka Saro

    The few little clips of the London production look far more interesting than the NYCO production of 84. Although it was a while ago — and I have long been mummified under my little pyramid — I remember the production as being rather stark, and without the kind of visionary beauty of Einstein OTB. This ENO production looks more thoughtful and interesting.

  • phoenix
  • swordsnsolvers

    Pretty good performance.

    Too bad about the narrator/poet role, who seems to alternate between histrionic, overdone, and grating. There’s no sense of austerity or ritual, the delivery tells us all about the speaker’s (fake) emotions and nothing about the content. And the final, bad American accent is just awful. Prefer the recorded version by far.

    • CarlottaBorromeo

      Zachary James (The Scribe) was born in Rhode Island, grew up in Florida and studied in Florida, Tennessee and New York. I guess we should blame the American education system for his “bad American accent”… I wonder if it was quite so awful when he played Abraham Lincoln in Glass’s The Perfect American…

      • swordsnsolvers

        I stand corrected! I should have been more precise: bad American yokel tour guide accent.

      • Howling in Tune

        In that case, we can blame Florida.
        Blaming Florida is usually a safe option.

        By the way, did you guys see that the latest invasive species down there is the Nile crocodile?

  • Howling in Tune

    What, no nekkid pix of Anthony Roth Costanzo?

  • Probably been close to 20 years since I’ve seen this documentary, but recommended for Akhnateniks. Seems to be rentable online.

    ?Still, nothing tops what Robert Ashley did in the late 70s.)

  • redbear

    My first encounter with the Glass Ensemble, in a small theater in La Jolla, stays in the memory. My impression is that it was “stoner” music but also giving the finger to the prevailing rules of contemporary music, mostly from the Darmstadt School, “atonal, no tunes, no repeats.” Later, when I saw that during the 1984 LA Olympics, they had scheduled Wilson and Glass’ entire “CIVIL wars.” a major affirmation of young American creativity, I imagined a new eras emerging. Then reality set in. Among the first to be scrapped, costs were cited, was the “Einstein” part. I did see part of the work called “Knee Plays” with music by David Byrne and staged by Wilson but mostly watched time pass and while Glass and Wilson became contemporary icons in Europe. (Note: even the recent “Einstein” was a French production.)

    • redbear

      Sorry about the “editing” but you get the idea.

    • …mostly watched time pass while Glass and Wilson became contemporary icons in Europe.

      Yes, I was just sorting through all my Deutsche Grammophon and Erato CDs of Philip Glass’ music just the other day.

      Out of respect for the delicate sensibilities of Parterre readers, I will not post a link to Philip Glass’ “appearance” on South Park. This will be left as an exercise for the interested reader.