By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – It took a long, long time for Philip Glass to establish a toehold at Los Angeles Opera, but he’s here now with a vengeance. First, a touring company of Einstein On The Beach lit up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2013, then came the score for the film Dracula last year at the Theatre at Ace Hotel. And on Saturday Nov. 5, a new production of Akhnaten checked in at the Pavilion for a three-week run.
LA Opera’s Akhnaten was not a first for this region. Long Beach Opera beat them to it in 2011, and the tiny Oakland Opera Theater laid claim to the West Coast premiere in 2004. Nor was it a completely in-house operation, this being a co-production with English National Opera, which provided the sets, props, and most of the lavish costumes. But it was a grand, significant step forward for a company that is displaying a fall calendar full of daring, enterprising projects.
Fittingly, only three days before Election Day in a polarized nation, this Akhnaten could not get started without a whiff of protest. A group under the label Black History Matters picketed the entrance of the Pavilion before the performance, proclaiming that the historical Akhnaten – an Egyptian pharaoh who reigned for 17 years after 1375 B.C. – was a black African and further accusing this production of being true to the entertainment industry’s “racist past” by not casting a black person in the role. LA Opera countered immediately, handing out a printed statement explaining their color-blind casting policies.
I think the protestors were barking up the wrong tree on this one, given the extreme scarcity of countertenors in the world trained to sing Akhnaten. Moreover, LA Opera did cast an African-American woman, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, in a lead role as Akhnaten’s wife Nefertiti.
In the opera, Akhnaten comes to power in the wake of a centuries-long string of conservative pharaohs in a conservative society and tries to upend the old polytheistic order by introducing the idea of one God, Aten, as symbolized by the sun. Eventually, Akhnaten and his family become insular and unresponsive to the needs of the people, so the conservatives strike back, overthrow Akhnaten, destroy his idyllic city, restore the old-time religion, and obliterate nearly all traces of his existence.
Glass’ opera follows this storyline, but not as a narrative; rather, the piece is a series of set scenes, like paintings or photographs with motion. The score’s obsessive, revolving arpeggios, often in the key of A minor, are put to an expressive use that some doubters might find surprising, with passages of tragic monumentality and brooding timelessness. The funeral music for Amenhotep III (Akhnaten’s father), with its hammering tattoo of ritual drums, is tremendously stimulating even when heard outside the context of the opera, and the whole final scene of Act I has a grandeur that rivals the Coronation Scene of Boris Godunov. Yes, Akhnaten and its companions in Glass’ portrait trilogy, Einstein and Satyagraha, are built to last, and they may be his greatest legacy.
For this production, British director Phelim McDermott – an old hand at Glass operas – preserved the rituals and the time periods while altering a few perspectives and adding some ideas of his own.
As Akhnaten dies and the Scribe (a spoken part) holds the pale, deposed pharaoh in his arms, the visual image looks like Michelangelo’s Pietà – and the resemblance is not a coincidence if you consider Akhnaten to be a Jesus-like figure martyred for butting heads with religious tradition. In Glass’ original vision, before the Epilogue, a gaggle of tourists in the present day (20th century) visit the ruins of Akhnaten’s city, wandering around taking photos while a tour leader reads from Fodor’s and Frommer’s guides to Egypt. Here, the scene was a classroom of sometimes unruly students listening to a lecture about the ruins delivered by a professor. I think the original idea is better; it makes for a more ironic distancing effect.
Tom Pye’s set was a three-story stack of compartments bordered by steel girders. It had props of ambiguous meaning, like a giant wheel and a balancing scale. Kevin Pollard’s costumes were lavish; Bruno Poet’s lighting created some stunning vignettes, particularly the ever-fluctuating overhead orb representing the sun; and the movements of the cast were in the stylized, slow-motion sauntering tradition of Robert Wilson.
The most spectacularly entertaining part of the production was the use of a silent team of highly skilled jugglers, choreographed by Sean Gandini, who reappeared throughout the opera in ever-more-daring feats of balance, nerve, and synchronization with the music and with each other. This has historical precedent: A sidebar in the program notes pointed out that the earliest recorded instance of juggling comes from a 4,000-year-old wall painting in ancient Egypt.
Anthony Roth Costanzo shone with a beautiful, penetrating countertenor as Akhnaten, bravely making his entrance totally naked as he prepared to assume the robes and decorations of power. Bridges displayed a warm, shaded mezzo as Nefertiti – she resembled Jessye Norman in appearance and majesty in Act II – and LA Opera regular Stacey Tappan lent her soprano to Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye. Zachary James declaimed the spoken role of The Scribe in an often overwrought tone.
The music was entrusted to LA Opera’s young artist-in-residence Matthew Aucoin, who not only presided in the pit with ceaselessly energetic motions but also gave the pre-concert lecture with demonstrations on the piano. He made some pertinent points like “Let’s just live in A minor, we don’t need all those gods” – and got a laugh when, after playing some relentless A minor arpeggios from the Prelude, he quipped, “I could go on and on!”
Yet Glass’ music, despite its surface simplicity, is no walk in the park. The repetitions are notoriously rough on conventionally trained classical musicians, and the muffled-sounding LA Opera Orchestra seemed out of its comfort zone a good deal of the time. Aucoin could not produce the trance he aimed for in the Prelude, the fast-ish tempo of the “Funeral of Amenhotep III” lacked a groove, and the great Act I final scene didn’t convey its full measure of power until the last banging of the chimes. The more meditative stretches of Acts II and III fared better when Aucoin slowed the tempo and was able to relax. Then, the opera could weave its spell.
Akhnaten continues through Nov. 27, and with the composer’s 80th birthday (Jan. 31, 2017) approaching, there’s more major Glass coming down the freeway: Ever-fearless Long Beach Opera will present the U.S. premiere of The Perfect American, the controversial portrait of a dying Walt Disney, March 12 and 18, 2017. Welcome to Philip Glass Central.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.