* Notes *
Los Angeles Opera's recent Akhnaten, which closed last Sunday with a matinee performance, was nothing short of spectacular. With Philip Glass' hypnotic score, an excellent cast, and a grand production featuring acrobats and a flexible, multi-level set, it was hard to look away from the stage for even a second.
This is the third of three biographical operas by Glass, the first two being Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, which focus on Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. This opera deals with the life of pharaoh Akhenaten, who abandoned polytheism in favor of worshipping Aten, a sun deity. The text of the opera is in Ancient Egyptian, Biblical Hebrew, and Akkadian.
The music features many arpeggios and no violins, it is not as surreal as Einstein and not as austere as Satyagraha. The music does seem difficult to perform, and though not perfectly precise, the LA Opera orchestra did admirably under the direction of Matthew Aucoin. The chorus members looked like they were all concentrating very hard as well, especially when they had to throw balls as they sang.
The main character is sung by a countertenor, in this case by the very talented Anthony Roth Constanzo, who is a regular at the Met and also had a star turn in San Francisco Opera's Partenope a few years ago. Constanzo has a beautiful, pure tone. He did sound somewhat shrill in Act II Scene 2, his duet with Nefertiti, but he was incredible in the rest of the piece. The epilogue was especially gorgeous, and certainly soprano Stacey Tappan (Queen Tye) and mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges (Nefertiti) made strong contributions here as well. Tappan has a clear, sweet sound and Bridges is powerful without dominating the other voices.
The smaller roles were all beautifully cast. Baritone Kihun Yoon (Horemhab), bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell (Aye), and tenor Frederick Ballentine (High Priest of Amon) sang with an unparalleled cohesion. The six daughters of Akhnaten sounded elegant and lovely, particularly sopranos So Young Park and Summer Hassan. Even the non-singing role of the scribe, who narrates the scenes in lieu of supertitles, was expertly performed by bass Zachary James, a imposing presence with an attractive voice, even if he didn't sing here.
The striking co-production with English National Opera opened at that opera house last March. The set, which looks to be made of metal and is designed by Tom Pye, features three levels and sliding doors, it is contemporary and easily moved but still formidable, especially when populated by the chorus and the supers. Kevin Pollard's costumes make nods at Ancient Egypt but also reference other eras. The look is a bit Steampunk and also a bit H.R. Giger. Akhnaten's robes have baby doll heads on them, for instance.
Director Phelim McDermott makes use of ten jugglers, an acknowledgement of the earliest known depiction of juggling being found in Egypt and of Philip Glass' music, which requires similar adroit, well-timed skill. The jugglers, dressed for the most part as cracked statues, add to both the spectacle and otherworldly quality of the piece. McDermott never lacks for ideas, there was a huge hamster wheel in Act I and Contanzo is completely naked for much of this act as he is slowly maneuvered into his pharaoh clothing. Act II Scene 4 has a giant balloon aloft mid-stage, prettily lit different colors until it clearly represents the sun. The six daughters have blue dreadlocks that all tie together, and the scene in which they are drawn into the crowd is very effective and disturbing. The production has a coherence that never detracts from the music.
* Tattling *
This final performance looked completely full, and I made a point of trying to sit near the stage, as I had heard the visual aspect of the production was very compelling. Also, one would think being so close to the performers would make one embarrassed to talk. This was not completely true, the women in Row C Seats 9 and 10, the second row, made a lot of comments, but at least they were about the action, however uninsightful ("Pretty" or "Like Cirque du Soleil") they sometimes were.