Saturday, November 12, 2016

opera review: Akhnaten

Open are the double doors of the horizon.
Unlocked are its gates.
I'm not much of an opera-goer, and it's unprecedented that I would travel out of town just to see an opera. But it's not out of character for me if that opera is Akhnaten by Philip Glass. I only know Glass's earlier theater works, and there are parts of Satyagraha and The Photographer I cherish most. But overall, Akhnaten is my favorite. A production by the LA Opera was a golden opportunity for a work rarely staged, and I made a quick trip down to see Thursday's performance at the Chandler Pavilion, a hall I'd been to before when the LA Philharmonic was still playing there, before they moved to the newer Disney Hall across the street.

Akhnaten was the Egyptian pharaoh who essentially, at least as Glass understood the history, invented monotheism. At a pre-show talk, conductor Matthew Aucoin described him, as depicted in this opera, as a visionary reformer whose achievements were erased by his successors; sound like anybody we know? Without getting further into politics, Aucoin suggested that this performance would be a catharsis that we all needed. He described Glass as also a visionary reformer, ridding music of unneeded complexity as Akhnaten had the pantheon of gods, in revolt against the serialist orthodoxy (Aucoin used that word) of the previous generation.

Akhnaten is not a plot-based opera; it's a series of near-static tableaus, focused on the music rather than the action, which is part of why I like it so much. I also like the dark sound quality; as with the Brandenburg Sixth, another favorite work of mine, there are no violins; but this is otherwise a big orchestra with a full sound.

This production was imported from the English National Opera. The sets and costumes, though not Egyptian-inspired, were weird and fascinating. The special feature was a troupe of ten silent juggler/acrobats integrated into the story; the repetition and shifting patterns of their juggling reflects the music. Except for the jugglers, however, everyone on stage moved extremely slowly. Even Akhnaten's violent overthrow at the end took place in such slow motion that it could seem motionless moment-by-moment.

This too reflected the music; but I found it not at all boring, but beautiful and gripping all the way through. Not all agreed, though. After each intermission the audience was slightly smaller, but most of us appreciated all 3.5 hours of it. It was an enrapturing performance that was worth the effort I took to get there.

SFCV's review of the premiere last week has details and photos. And the LA Times review has more; I thought the orchestra was fine by the time I heard them, though the Chandler acoustics hadn't improved; but then, that I was prepared for.

Here's a recording of the part of Akhnaten with the most interesting vocal work, though it's still totally unlike anything opera-lovers would normally expect to hear. It's a trio for Akhnaten - a counter-tenor, an eerie voice type meant to come as a surprise after his silent appearance in the previous scene for his coronation - his mother Queen Tye (soprano) and his wife Queen Nefertiti (mezzo). By using the high range of the man's voice and the low ranges of the women's, Glass intertwines them fascinatingly. What language is that they're singing? Ancient Egyptian, of course; what else?

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