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Pharaoh Akhnaten ascends throne to address Egypt

REVIEW: Akhnaten

LA OPERA
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
RODNEY PUNT

The lure of Ancient Egypt has influenced operas as varied as Mozart’s Magic Flute, Verdi’s Aida, and Massenet’s Thaïs, all great works. But the 1983 opera Akhnaten, composed by Philip Glass in the minimalist style he largely created, stands alone in its ability to depict that civilization’s timeless continuity. The mesmerizing work, as newly conceived and mounted last March in London by the English National Opera, was given its US premiere on Saturday evening by co-producer LA Opera.

One of three Glass “portrait” operas that chronicle game-changers of history, Akhnaten is the second produced by the company, following on the heels of 2012’s successful Einstein on the Beach, with only Satyagraha (about Gandhi) awaiting production. Plucky Long Beach Opera may have gotten here first with a modest Akhnaten in 2011, but LA Opera’s lavish new version is literally over the sun. 
Akhnaten and Nefertiti
Directed by Phelim McDermott and conducted by Matthew Aucoin, with choral prep by Grant Gershon, Akhnaten featured superb singing by an ideal cast, orchestral work of taxing stamina, and a host of nimble jugglers. Nearly every element came together flawlessly. In the stellar array, Glass’ minimalist music emerged the biggest star. Endless orchestral repetitions, arpeggios, and slow-changing modulations, so often criticized by advocates of faster-paced operatic action, were here turned to advantage as they invoked the stability of a civilization that endured for three millennia, in part by resisting change. 
Yet change was the central concern of the 17-year reign of Akhnaten, the pharaoh who arrived at the mid-point of the long civilization and upended tradition by worshiping not Isis, Osiris and other gods, but solely the sun god Aten. In this version of his radical departure from a polytheistic Egypt, Akhnaten (the “son of Aten”) fires his corrupt priesthood, orders Egypt to practice monotheism, and moves his capital to a new location. Although this first known experiment with monotheism may have influenced its eventual adoption by nearby Semitic tribes, it didn’t last in Egypt beyond Akhnaten’s death, which it just may have prompted. 
Designed spectacularly by Tom Pye and lit with subtle flair by Bruno Poet in a dissolving and dazzling spectrum of glowing hues, the evening’s initial set suggested the inside of a vast tomb of uniformity and order. Vertically oriented and divided into a series of chambers, the set was lit with rich amber as the action began. Silhouetted figurines came to life on the face of the walls like living hieroglyphics. Movement was synchronized at the pace of the rising and setting sun, in conformity with the deliberate pacing of the music. Costumer Kevin Pollard amplified the wow factor with a kaleidoscopic array of historic Egyptian costumes. 
Egyptian jugglers
Spherical objects large and small reinforced Akhnaten’s obsession with the sun as the source of all animation. Those spheres could be juggler’s balls whose airborne flights mimicked the pulsing music -- juggling was an ancient skill of the Egyptians -- or they could be just one huge sphere dominating the stage as a vast solar object of veneration. The nine jugglers imported from the UK manipulated both balls and pins and never dropped a single one in three acts, maintaining the production’s magical spell.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brought his experience as the ENO's Akhnaten to a method-acting tour de force that had him appearing for his initial purification ceremony in full frontal nudity, his body shaved of all its hair. Draped later in a massively ornate costume, he navigated it not only horizontally, but also up steep steps to commune with the sun and command his court. In later scenes, Costanzo's character displayed the androgynous features of a hermaphrodite. His luminous countertenor singing carried through the cavernous Chandler Pavilion with ease, all the more impressive considering the voice-type is a falsetto produced with only a portion of the male vocal apparatus. 
The Scribe who narrates
The only personality on stage to command a comparable vocal and dramatic presence to Akhnaten was the speaking role of the Scribe, performed by powerful bass-baritone Zackery James, whose thundering narration in English substituted for the usual supertitles and was mostly understandable to the audience. Although missed by some, I found the removal of the scrolling text liberating. Its absence, along with the LA Opera's quick reference guide between acts, allowed full stage immersion as the scenes unfolded.

Mellow-toned mezzo J’Nai Bridges joined Costanzo as his wife Nefertiti (yes, the famous one), their voices in the same mezzo range blending as naturally as their red-trained costumes. Stacey Tappan was Akhnaten's mother, Queen Tye, and Patrick Blackwell his father, Aye; Kihun Yoon the power-in-waiting General Horemhab and Zachary James the High Priest of Amon.

Notable scenes included the confrontation by the priests that opens the second act, the exquisite and serene duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti that follows, and the former’s hymn that closes this act. The fullest populated scene of the evening opened the third act, as the idleness and insularity of the royal family’s domestic life at home contrasted with the suffering of daily life outside the royal gates. Following this came the ritualistic separation of Akhnaten from his family, his six daughters having their long hair in matted tendrils gathered together and hauled off for slaughter by the masses. 
Akhnaten and Nefertiti's nuptial
The opera closed with a preview of pharaonic scenes to come, as Akhnaten’s son, the juvenile Tutankhamun (King Tut) was crowned in his iconic garb while the old religion was restored to the kingdom. In a final touch, almost tongue in cheek, the work’s epilogue had a modern-day group of archeologists preparing a display-case version of Akhnaten for a museum.

Aucoin's handling of the orchestra and the discipline of the musicians themselves was admirable, with minor opening night glitches quickly recovered to form. The score calls for lower strings only, with no violins. The sonority of violas, cellos, and basses, with added woodwind and brass colorations, created an aural glow fully in sync with visual elements. In combination with the stage action, they opened an enthralling window into a world of timeless antiquity.
Was Akhnaten a visionary whose monotheistic innovations spurred on Abrahamic religions? Or was he merely a strong-willed egoist whose power play on a corrupt priesthood was undone by his own neglect? This work suggests Akhnaten’s familial self-absorption led to the disarray, but it doesn’t answer the larger question of his impact on history. This much is sure: the depiction of Akhnaten's brief reign was one of the most effective stagings in LA Opera’s three decades and a high water mark in the ascendency of musical Minimalism.
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Photos by Craig T. Mathew are used by permission of LA Opera.

Performances continue 7:30 pm on Nov. 10, 17 & 19 and 2 pm on Nov. 13 & 27.

Further information at LA Opera or (213) 972-8001.
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