Cher Public

Something Aten!

akhnaten-1Sometimes, as with last week’s upending election, history seems to jump to an entirely different, unimagined timeline. The individuals who cause these disruptive changes have been a fascination for Philip Glass, whose first three operas form the so-called “Portrait Trilogy” about visionaries who transformed their respective eras.  

Akhnaten, seen at the Los Angeles Opera on November 13 tells the story of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) who abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism to worship only the deity Aten. While this is regarded as an early outbreak of monotheism, technically it is better described as monolatry since he did not deny the existence of the other Gods, but chose not to worship them. Glass’s other two works in the trilogy are Satyagraha with its all too timely lessons on civil disobedience and Einstein on the Beach, whose significance for the current day, I’d rather not contemplate.

This piece, with the its musical language of slowly evolving phrases is a reinvented Baroque opera in its form:  Accompanied narrations serve as recitatives, allowing the ensuing numbers to contemplate the implications of the action described. This structure creates formidable challenges for directors who must manage with long stretches of music that have no required or implied action.

Director Phelim McDermott, who co-directed Metropolitan Opera / ENO production of Satyagraha with designer Julian Crouch, here has the sole directorial credit. His production displays many of the virtues of that landmark staging: the poetic realization of the themes and dramatic situations of the opera, the metamorphosis of everyday materials into powerful, beautiful images and the masterful handling of massed movements by the chorus.

Akhnaten’s reign is presented as a sublime, if transient, triumph over Chaos – the unwieldy multiplicity of divinities; the disloyal cliques of priests and military leaders, the fragile union of Upper and Lower Egypt. Akhnaten’s efforts to conquer disorder are manifested as juggling –  a simple if improbable source of stage pictures of great variety and power.

After the prelude, the show opens with the elevated chorus members each juggling a single ball in unison while a troupe of jugglers work through much more intricate routines below.  It’s mesmerizingly hypnotic.  These hyperkinetic sections are in stark contrast to the moments of Akhnaten’s supreme triumph.

akhnaten-2For Akhnaten’s great love duet with Nefertiti and the hymn that ends the second act, time nearly does stand still as the characters move slowly against a shifting, luminous backdrop. It’s superficially recalls Robert Wilson, but the effect here is romantic and has none of the clinical coldness of Wilson’s work.

Anthony Roth Costanzo’s performance in the title role will certainly become an interpretation that will be spoken about in hushed awe for some time to come, and not just because he performs naked for a considerable portion of the first act as he is anointed and slowly clothed for his coronation. At the intermission, the woman behind me explained helpfully to her companion, that he had to perform naked so that we would know it was a man singing!

His performance was remarkable for his focus and intensity, vocal and physical dexterity, and delicate shading he brought to the music.  He was particularly well matched by J’Nai Bridges as his wife Nefertiti who brought a similar delicacy and grace to her music.  Their Act II duet achieved an ecstatic sublimity.

Amongst the uniformly strong cast, it is also worth singling out the contribution of Zachary James as The Scribe, the non-singing narrator.  He supplied the necessary authority and passion and scaled unexpected dramatic heights in the peroration after Akhnaten’s death, delivered with ferocious tenderness as he carried dead pharaoh across the stage.

The chorus, prepared by Chorus Director Grant Gershon, handled their challenging music and intricate staging with noteworthy ease; The slow motion riot as they besieged Akhnaten’s home before his death, is an effect that so many have tried; here, it finally worked.  Unfortunately, the orchestra under composer Matthew Aucoin fared considerably less well.

akhnaten-3The strings lacked weight and balance; they had tuning problems through the evening.  At times, the orchestra seemed to lose its focus and the ensemble suffered, most notably when the percussion drifted off from the rest of the orchestra in a crucial moment in the third act.

Sets were by Tom Pye. He delivered a complex, industrial, multi-level structure that was reconfigured in surprising ways over the course of the evening, even sliding magically to the sides for the end of Act II so that Akhnaten can rise against a stage filling representation of Aten, the disk of the sun. The costumes by Kevin Pollard were Egyptian in their inspiration, but drew upon the imagery of many cultures for their execution.

Akhnaten had a dazzling series of elaborate looks that evoked the androgynous depictions of Akhnaten in the artwork from his time.  (I think Akhnaten had more costume changes than Massenet’s Manon.) Bruno Poet provided the expressive lighting.  Sean Gandini was credited in the program as the Juggling Choreographer(!) He devised a series of inventive, apt movements capturing everything from the building of the holy city of Akhetaten, to the collapse of Akhnaten’s empire and his death

If one of La Cieca’s recent blind items is to be interpreted correctly, this show is headed to New York City soon.  I can’t wait to see it again.

Photos: Craig T. Matthew/Los Angeles Opera

  • Alex Baker

    Great review…giving me tremendous FOMO that I can’t see it (though glad to hear it might be East Coast bound). Participated in a performance of Glass’ Fifth Symphony this weekend, which treads similar thematic ground to Akhnaten and Satyagraha and appreciated the comment about Glass and the baroque--portions of the 5th symphony easily recall something like Israel in Egypt….

    • Oooh! I would love to hear Symphony no. 5 again live. I was very interested but only heard it once (I have the score but it’s not the same as being there…). I am Queen of Old Fogies so Minimalism is not so persuasive to me, I can never settle into such intense repetition but I did like the end (a surprise) very much and after the fact realized I had after all enjoyed it, although not everybody did! I prefer the operas, especially Akhnaten but he is always stimulating to hear.

  • But Dawn, this is NOT the style of review preferred here at Parterre. What are you doing writing about the actual piece accurately? And how DAST you refer to music? It’s far more important to indulge in lit crit horseshit circa 2008. And you need a theme. How could you deal with the opera and whether it was effectively presented? Did you not know that there were demonstrations from people of color enraged that a Caucasian was singing the role of a “Black” Pharaoh? And isn’t it a fatal flaw in the piece that Mr. Glass did not use racism as the basis of his opera? What’s that you say? There is no evidence that Akhenaten was any color? Pish-tosh, when does that ever stop the deconstruction? Certainly he was black, that’s thrilling, and Akhenaten’s tragedy was marrying a white woman in a society of haters — and you didn’t bring Trump in as a reference! How dare you?

    Well I am disappointed in you. Surely this opera is about patriarchy. That Ahkenaten was king, and perhaps not kind, only makes this a lose lose, for the MAN crusheth the OTHER in eternity.

    (It doesn’t seem as though Akhenaten were black, although his mother — name variously given as Ty or Tiye — was partly of Nubian extraction. Yet genetic work done on his son my sister Tutankhamun suggests a haplogroup, called R1b1a2, that is rare in modern Egypt but common in western Europeans. (A haplogroup = a line of ancestors). There is actually a connection with Jews in that group. So Freud may have been on to something in his book writ whilst stuffing cotton in my nose (you are familiar with Freud’s therapies on women?), MOSES AND MONOTHEISM. That was dismissed as historical fiction (the idea being that one of Ahkenaten’s brothers fled Egypt at his death with a group of followers and conquered Canaan, perhaps changing his name to Moses).

    Ahkenaten was daddy but Nefertiti was not mommy — it seems that Ahkenaten used one of his sisters for children, a typical Egyptian royal gambit. Poor Tut was in for an anguished life given the markers for birth defects in his genetic screen — but he either fell in battle, fell in sport and hit his head or was murdered by his grandmom, Queen Ty, who lasted quite a long time and RULED.

    And HOW can you not criticize Glass for not being honest about the gay angle (after all there is no such thing as a work of art where choices are made by the creator)? Surely there should be a scene of Ahkenaten marrying his kid brother Smenkhkare and making him regent. (Naturally you wouldn’t mention there are nine million pages of argument as to what gender Smenkhkare really was — aha! gender — more thrilling than ANY musical gesture. There is good reason to think Smenkhkare was male but the reasons are another story.)

    Oh well, I am disappointed that you have offered a clear, intelligent and vivid account of the work and this production. Do better next time!!!!

  • mountmccabe

    Great review. I am really excited to be seeing this on Thursday.

  • JR

    I found the opera stupefyingly dull years ago at City Opera.

    • Just wait till L’Amour de Loin hits the Met…

  • Armerjacquino

    It’s an opera I’ve struggled with but this review makes me want to give it another go.

    (*Roth*, surely, not Ross…)

    • Krunoslav

      “MISS Roth to you…”

  • PCally

    This a really terrific review of a piece I know almost nothing about and am now dying to see. Hope it comes to New York

  • Luvtennis

    Great review, Dawn. I know this piece only through the recording -- but my reaction (to date) to the libretto has been very different from yours and probably from that of the composer. For me the work seems to be about the foolishness and hubris of reformers of human nature who are undone by the very human nature they seek to subvert. I am struck by the irony of the all of the great paens to the royal family and the new king. How foolish those words seem in light of the ignorant child to whom they are directed! History has taught us that whatever its benefits, near-eastern monotheism in conjunction with human nature has brought about more death and violence than almost any other single factor in history. The bitter irony of the fate of the royal family highlights for me the foolishness of any system of thought that is based on separating humanity from its nature and the natural world as a whole.

    For me Dawn, the opera is not about the fleeting triumph of order over chaos, but rather a warning to those who, through arrogance, see chaos where they should see life.

    • Luvtennis

      I just realized that the above makes me sound like a reactionary! Nothing could be further from the truth. I just believe that the strain of western thought that emphasizes the separation of man and Nature is misbegotten and self-defeating. The idea that human nature exists apart (and invariably above) nature itself is unhealthy and has contributed to the intransigence of our most pressing problems.

      And yes, I realize that I sound like one of the idiots called out in Mrs JC’s excellent post.

  • fletcher

    Thanks for this review -- it really is a fantastic show. At first I thought it a little too cirque-du-soleil, but the “hyperkinetic” patterns on stage really came together with the music to make something very special. Excellent performances from ARC and the brilliant J’Nai Bridges -- especially in their duet, where they slowly approach one another from opposite sides of the stage, clad in blood-red robes of seemingly infinite length. There were no supertitles, so you can absorb the story rather than try to understand the plot (which is minimal anyway). Sorry to hear about Aucoin -- I didn’t hear any obvious problems opening night, but I’m not very familiar with the score either.