On Saturday, December 5, 2016, we attended the opening night at Los Angeles Opera of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, which premiered in Stuttgart in 1984, based on the life of a monotheistic Egyptian pharaoh who reigned from 1353-1336 BCE. Certain writers, for example, Sigmund Freud, have proposed that Akhnaten may have influenced Moses and the advent of Judaism.
In reality there is not a lot known about Akhnaten, other than that he attempted to change Egypt’s polytheistic religious society into one in which worship of the sun, as a god, was exclusive. After his death, about which nothing is known, (in Glass’s version he is murdered by vengeful priests), Egypt gradually changed back to polytheism. This lack of detail as to Akhnaten’s life and death gave Glass and his collaborators a great deal of freedom in crafting his opera, one of his three “Portrait Operas,” the others being Einstein on the Beach (1976) and his portrait of Gandhi, Satyagraha (1980).
The Los Angeles production, which originated with English National Opera, directed by Phelim McDermott, (director of the Met’s remarkable Satyagraha) was nothing, if not theatrical. The sets and costumes were spectacular, colorful and variegated with characters dressed not only in someone’s idealized dream of ancient Egyptian court clothing, but also dressed as New Orleans funeral characters, mighty white hunters in pith helmets and countless other variations. Akhnaten makes his appearance half-way through the First Act, in the nude, slowly (all action in the opera is slow) descending a staircase, from which he is then flipped over backwards and inserted two-legs at a time into his pants. He is then enclosed in an over-the-top, even-for-an-Egyptian-pharaoh, highly decorated robe, lined with small skulls.
McDermott also effectively utilized a troupe of jugglers, choreographed by Sean Gandini, whose appearance was based ancient Egyptian wall paintings. In the program, Gandini notes that the “objects [juggled] are alter egos to the character’s ideas; miniature globular deities, bouncing thoughts, desert sands.” Whether one buys into this or not, the juggling patterns do “relate to the music and create a dialogue with it.”
The music, of course, is Philip Glass Minimalism with rhythmic themes repeated with small variations. The score differs from most because due to the small theater in which the opera premiered, there is no use of violins. (There is, however, very effective use of percussion in the First Act). I am not sure I would want to listen to a recording of this piece, but it worked perfectly with the stage action. Twenty-six year old classical music wunderkind, Matthew Aucoin, conducted, and mentioned in his pre-opera lecture that the work should be considered a “meditation” on its subject matter, something that moves more slowly than we are used to in 2016. I was able to accept it as such, and was pretty much dazzled by the proceedings on stage and hypnotized by the music.
Anthony Roth Costanzo was the perfect Akhnaten, singing with a beautiful, surprisingly large, countertenor voice. Unfortunately, in the First Act, he has very little to sing, but more than makes up for it with his beautiful duet with his wife Nefertiti and the gorgeous Hymn to the Sun in the Second Act, as well as the ghostly trio with Nefertiti and Queen Tye that ends the opera. J’Nai Bridges and Stacey Tappan were fine as Nefertiti and Queen Tye, but the most interesting character was the role of “The Scribe,” a speaking part, acted by Zachary James, an impressively large man, who narrates some of the action and recites some of the inscriptions found in Akhnaten’s abandoned capital. Near the end of the opera, he appears as an Egyptologist lecturing his students on the little that is known of Akhnaten. The narration was helpful because the action was presented without surtitles, (languages include Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, Greek and English) which was not a problem, because the story is presented simply and clearly in an insert to the program and by the action on stage.
Given the rarity of performances of this opera, and the quality of the production, I would certainly recommend attendance.