A Hypnotic and Hyperbolic Akhnaten

United StatesUnited States Glass, Akhnaten: Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of LA Opera/Matthew Aucoin (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 5.11.2016. (JRo)

Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Akhnaten. Credit: Craig T. Mathew 
Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Akhnaten (c) Craig T. Mathew

Akhnaten – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Nefertiti – J’Nai Bridges
Queen Tye – Stacey Tappan
Horemhab – Kihun Yoon The Scribe – Zachary James
High Priest of Amon – Frederick Ballentine Aye: Patrick Blackwell
Six Daughters of Akhnaten – So Young Park, Summer Hassan, Elizabeth Zharoff, Michelle Siemens, Michele Hemmings, Sharmay Musacchio

Director – Phelim McDermott
Scenery Design – Tom Pye
Costume Design – Kevin Pollard
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Choreography – Sean Gandini
Chorus Director – Grant Gershon

With enough juggling stunts to rival Cirque du Soleil, Philip Glass’s Akhnaten tumbled into town from London in a staging co-produced by English National Opera and LA Opera. It was night to remember, both for its failings and for its strengths. When Glass’s meditation on the life of Akhnaten was accorded the dignity it deserved, there were moments of true beauty both musically and poetically, but the kitschy, visually distracting costumes and stage business hampered most attempts at contemplation.

One of Glass’s “portrait operas,” Akhnaten is the third in a series that includes Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi). In Glass’s mind, Einstein transformed science; Gandhi, with his belief in non-violent resistance, expressed the socio-political; and the pharaoh Akhnaten, an early believer in monotheism, embodied the role of religion in society.

The irony of this production was that one had to fight the gaudy, overstocked staging to arrive at the spiritual. A dark, industrial, three-level set was populated by juggling mummies, covered in what appeared to be a pattern of cracked-earth patches. A black suit and skull hat for Aye, Nefertiti’s father, conjured Baron Samedi, a spirit of Haitian Vodou, while Queen Tye’s curly red wig and garish costume made her a Statue of Liberty with overtones of Wild West saloon girl and Queen Victoria.

There was a Halloween party campiness to this aspect of the production that entertained in its own curious way, but to get at the heart of the opera one needed more restful moments, and there were some. Particularly affecting, both musically and dramatically, was Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s duet in Act II. Slowly emerging from the wings in scarlet robes with long trains, Anthony Roth Costanzo and J’Nai Bridges sang elegantly of their love. As in the “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde, it became a moment outside time, a mystical glimpse into the beyond. Costanzo has the classic countertenor’s eerie celestial sound, well-suited to the role, and Bridges’s rich mezzo blended with his voice so well that it felt like listening to the folk tradition of blood harmony – that singular sound of close relatives singing together, which creates a sort of aural shimmer.

The second act was certainly the strongest, allowing Glass’s music to take precedence. Akhnaten’s “Hymn” in praise of Aten, the Sun god, is a highlight of the score and, unimpeded by either a bulky costume or his varying states of nudity, Costanzo mounted a staircase to a large disc of a sun, singing ecstatically of all that Aten created on earth.

Sometimes overshadowed by the endless juggling of white balls (an overly literal tossing of little suns), whether in the hands of the Gandini juggling troupe or those of the chorus who struggled to keep them aloft, the singers often seemed secondary to the aims of the production. It was a valiant Stacey Tappan, in the role of Queen Tye, mother to Akhnaten, who managed to sing in her radiant soprano despite a raft of juggling clubs sailing past her and Costanzo’s heads in the Act II Temple scene. To be fair, the juggling was not entirely arbitrary, depicted as it was on Egyptian friezes, but a little would have gone a long way.

Slow motion choreography seemed to be the order of the day. Everyone moved at a trance-like speed (except the jugglers, of course). Compelling though it was in the Nefertiti/Akhnaten duet, it often felt leaden and static elsewhere. In addition, because Glass’s music has a repetitive structure, the cumulative effect gave the evening an odd dullness despite the glitter and glamour. Matthew Aucoin, LA Opera’s Artist in Residence, conducted the LA Opera Orchestra admirably in this difficult score full of rhythmic twists and turns. There were occasions when the pacing seemed a bit slow, but because Glass eliminated violins in the score the overall tone is generally more somber than in many of his other works.

The Scribe of Zachary James, a spoken role intended to explain some of the history and mechanics of the plot, is a flawed concept in the opera. To my mind, it’s a device that brings the action grinding to a halt. Though the libretto – sung in English, Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, and Biblical Hebrew – is more poetic than narrative, Glass’s insertion of spoken dialogue intrudes and detracts.

As Akhnaten’s trio of advisors, Kihun Yoon, Frederick Ballentine, and Patrick Blackwell added a welcome whiff of grand opera to the production. The six daughters of Nefertiti and Akhnaten, dressed as Egyptian zombie brides, lent a terrifying dramatic edge to the show as they were swarmed by an angry mob that destroyed Akhnaten and the reign of Aten.

Though my preference would have been for a Robert Wilson-style directorial take on Akhnaten, it certainly is a treat to finally have the opera in Los Angeles, city of angels and sun lovers.

Jane Rosenberg

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