Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Opera

From the mid-1970’s through the early 1980’s composer Philip Glass wrote three “portrait operas” which revolutionized conventional operatic production. Einstein on the Beach, created with director Robert Wilson, was the first as well as the most influential of the three.

Einstein’s success was followed by Satyagraha, focused on Gandhi, and Akhnaten which presented scenes from the life of the extraordinary Pharaoh who renounced the gods of Egypt and introduced monotheism.

Perhaps most surprising is that, despite their seminal nature, productions of any of the operas were, until recently, rare. LA Opera presented a limited run of Wilson’s production of Einstein 3 years ago, and their current Akhnaten is a co-production with English National Opera.

With Akhnaten, Glass and his collaborators strove to look seriously at the life of an uncommon man whose beliefs upset the social construct enough that others tried to erase him from history. In order to avoid campy Land of the Pharaohs style storytelling, the opera was designed as a series of tableaux without narrative connection. The libretto comes from various historical sources and is, therefore, performed in several ancient languages. Though Akhnaten’s “Hymn to the Sun” and the spoken lines for The Scribe are performed in the native language of the audience.

Director Phelim McDermott conceives the opera as ritual and he fills Tom Pye’s colossal three-tiered set with the various strata of Egyptian society: the royal family, the court and priests, and the people. McDermott makes bold choices and creates powerful images.

The opening finds the body of Amenhotep III being prepared for burial. Doctors in lab coats attend the body, the court and the Pharaoh’s widow, Queen Tye appear. The chorus sings passages from The Egyptian Book of the Dead as canopic jars are ceremonially carried and the characters in a temple frieze come to life and begin to juggle.

Through this disorder, the figure of the new king, Amenhotep IV (it will be some years before he takes the name of Ahknaten) appears. Naked and vulnerable, he makes his way uncertainly through the indifferent crowd and is carefully robed in his coronation finery. Clad in golden attire, like a later French “Sun King,” he takes command of his domain.

Impressive as these intricate scenes are, the contrasting simplicity of the second act is even more effective. Like the moment when Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti sing a passionate love duet dressed in filmy red robes which stretch across the considerable width of the Chandler stage. Or Akhnaten’s hymn, performed as he slowly mounts a flight of stairs in front of a mammoth sun. This is visual poetry.

Glass’ minimalist score may sound straightforward, but the hypnotic power of the music is dependent on constant subtle shifts in tone and rhythm. This makes singing any of the roles a formidable challenge. LA Opera is lucky to have found a cast that is up to the challenge.

Anthony Roth Costanzo is a fast-rising star in the countertenor firmament, and his memorable performance in the title role of Akhnaten proves why. He sings the tricky vocal lines with seemingly effortless command and his fearless commitment to the physical demands of the staging is remarkable.

The always reliable Stacey Tappan triumphs over a dowdy costume, unfurling her lovely soprano through the early portions of the opera as Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye. J’Nai Bridges proves an elegant and arresting Nefertiti with a rich and supple instrument. The court is strongly represented by Patrick Blackwell (Aye), Kihun Yoon (Horemhab) and Frederick Ballentine (High Priest), while a majestic Zachary James gamely intones the less-than-enlightening words of The Scribe.

Conductor Matthew Aucoin, an LA Opera Resident Artist for the next three seasons, conducted Glass’ score with a  fiercely controlled intelligence that allowed the music to soar, casting a spell over the audience.

The production is not to be missed, not only because of its rarity, but because so much of it is truly outstanding. It is three hours long, but you’ll never feel it. It has no supertitles for the ancient languages, but you won’t miss them.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion   November 5 – 27, 2016    www.laopera.org