In his autobiography “Words Without Music,” Philip Glass talks about his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, which concluded in 1966. He recounts a letter she had written in support of this: “I’ve been working with Mr. Philip Glass on music technique. My impression is that he is a very unusual person, and I believe that someday he will do something very important in the world of music.” Los Angeles Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten is an extraordinary visual, theatrical and musical event about the rise and fall of Pharaoh Akhnaten, of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, during his seventeen-year reign. His personal life, or what is know of it, involves Queen Nefertiti his wife, Amenhotep III his father, his mother, six daughters and a fanatical belief in Aten, an Egyptian solar deity he elevated to supreme stature and worshiped above all others. The three act opera, the last in the Glass Trilogy, received a world premiere in 1983, and this production, in collaboration with English National Opera, is directed by Phelim McDermott (of London’s Improbable theater). His concept is mesmerizing: the stage is enveloped in an atmosphere of foreboding realism illuminated by Bruno Poet’s magical use of lighting nuances and Tom Pye’s stark set where a large disc alternates between white and high noon sunshine. Avant-garde choreography and stunning costumes add atmospheric punch. The audience was spellbound.
The striking opening scene features countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) walking down stairs in total nakedness, until he is maneuvered into a shimmering golden garb. His skin is translucent, physique hermaphroditical and singing is delivered with purity and crystal clear focus - particularly in the first act trio with vibrant J’Nai Bridges (Nefertiti) and Stacey Tappan (Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother) and his solo aria “Hymn to the Aten” (sung in English) of Act 2. Other highlights of this act feature a luminous duet sequence where Costanzo and Bridges slowly walk towards each other wearing yards of red material and touch hands in a pose of timeless serenity. The strong supporting cast includes Patrick Blackwell (Aye, Nefertiti’s father) and Frederick Ballentine (High Priest of Amon).
Although many have labeled Glass a minimalist, he prefers to describe his style as, “music with repetitive structures.” And there was plenty of that in the score’s orchestration and vocal parts, which contain an unending mixture of motives, alternating rhythms, modality, tonal dissonance and single pitched notes. The score is dark, undulating and intense from the opening, but the action on stage is barren, with the outer acts containing most of the bustle. Characters move in slow motion gestures, surrounded by jugglers throwing and catching balls of different sizes a la Cirque Plume. Sometimes the choreography jives with the music and sometimes it seems to impede the score’s brilliant momentum. The orchestra’s reading, conducted by Matthew Aucoin, LA Opera Artist in Residence was commanding, particularly the winds and percussion, but the brass seemed to over play the ensemble, at times. The chorus, prepared by Grant Gershon had uncompromising precision.
The libretto uses English narration, read with great flair by Zachary James (The Scribe) and texts sung in Hebrew and Akkadian that include writings from “Egyptian Book of the Dead,” and Akhnaten himself. The mélange of exotic verbiage is virtually indecipherable, but who cares, since this vernacular brings a sense of mysticism to the story – as do the costumes. Don’t expect to see Ralph Lauren outerwear, as Kevin Pollard’s imaginative couture creations are Star Trekian in their assortment of robes, gowns, suits, uniforms and headgear from different historical eras. The third act ends in the present, where a gathering of students learning about Egyptian antiquities dissolves into a transcendent vision of Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye reunited in eternity. LA Opera achieved greatness in this production and in the Spring, Long Beach Opera will have its turn with the American premiere of Philip Glass’ “The Perfect American.”