Monday, January 26, 2009

My Year of Opera (III): Philip Glass, "Akhnaten"

I first got into Philip Glass's music around 14 years ago, and one of the first compositions I fell in love with were selected scenes from his opera, Akhnaten. Though I only got my hands on a full recording of the opera around 10 years ago, it has probably been my favorite Glass composition since I heard his music. For well over a decade, I'd hoped to catch a live performance of the opera, but the challenge was significant; prior to this January, Akhnaten has been performed only 7 times globally. Fortunately, the Atlanta Opera was putting on a performance this year; even more fortunately, I had a place to stay in Atlanta; and most fortunately of all, I knew somebody who was involved in the production of Atlanta's performance, and was able to get a ticket. So this past weekend, I flew down to Atlanta to catch what was the eighth performance of Akhnaten.

The opera is part three of Glass's trilogy of "biographical" operas (the other two being Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, about Gandhi in South Africa). Aknaten narrates the ascension of the titular pharoah and his decision to abolish all other Egyptian deities and worship only the "aten," or sun-disc, thereby creating what many have argued was the world's first monotheistic religion. Glass's opera focuses on Akhnaten's epiphany, his relationship with Nefertiti (his wife), his creation of a city devoted only to the Aten, and his subsequent downfall as he alienated his subjects and the priests of the old gods. The opera closes with tourists walking around the remains of Akhetaten, the city the pharoah built for his new religion, while the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye (his mother) wander about.

Although the story is simple, it is incredibly dependent on stage directions, moreso than any other opera I'm aware of (which, admittedly, is limited). Several of the scenes are composed only of wordless singing (most notably, the scene in which Akhnaten and Tye order the Temple of Amon be destroyed). Thus, the stage directions have a lot of action that they must convey that the recorded version of the opera couldn't possibly convey, and a lot hinges on the body language and facial expressions of the actors, as well as the broader directions given.

Fortunately, the stage direction was outstanding. Richard Kagey's directions and decisions were remarkable. The tension and violence of the destruction of Amon's temple, non-verbally acted out on the stage, was remarkable and perfect; likewise, the budding love of Nefertiti and Akhnaten in Act II, Scene 2 gave an even greater emotional heft to the music. While these two portions were highlights, the entire opera was outstanding in terms of acting. There were virtually no setpieces due to space restrictions (the only "sets" were a chair and table that served as the throne of the pharoah, and some veils that were taken on and off the stage repeatedly and that functioned as curtains, religious symbols, and royal opulence). However, the sparseness on stage was unimportant, Kagey's stage design and the acting performances and nuances he brought out of his singers gave the performance an emotional depth and heft that one could never conceive the opera had just listening to a recording.

The other highlight of the opera (aside from finally hearing and seeing something live that you've wanted to see for close to 15 years) was the Atlanta Opera Chorus. They sat on the stage in all black, functioning almost like a Greek chorus, overseeing all. The sheer power of the ensemble, though, was breathtaking to the point where words almost fail. In comparison to the Met's chorus, Atlanta's was far and away much better in every sense, from nuance to power, from emotion to accuracy. They could take your breath away with sheer volume (as in Act I, at the end of the Funeral of Amenhotep III) or with sheer, huanting, devastatingly beautiful quiet (as they sang Psalm 104 at the end of Act II).

I did have a few minor complaints about the performance. The bass was unable to really make his voice heard over the chorus in the funeral scene for Amenhotep III; I suppose you could blame the chorus for this, but they are supposed to be loud, and he just couldn't keep up. Also, I've listened to the recorded version of the opera enough to pick up some subtle musical shifts that very well may have been in the score but not on the recording (most notably, the addition of cymbals in "The Window of Appearances" at the end of Act I). Additionally, the orchestra (composed only of woodwinds and percussion, and a violin-free string section composed only of violas, cellos, and basses) seemed rather muted; it may have been I simply couldn't hear them as well from my seat (which was only about 6 rows back from the stage and pit), but perhaps not. I felt occasionally that the orchestra may have been a bit off, too, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, as I was simply going on memory of a recording, while they had the score in front of them. The conductor himself seemed to do a fine job, though, and aside from these minor quibbles, I had no complaints.

Indeed, after almost 15 years of waiting to see a live performance of Akhnaten, I was actually kind of anxious going into it, fearing that I would have built it up so much in my hopes and expectations that it couldn't possibly match them. Mercifully and gloriously, it was even better than I'd hoped and proved to be as triumphant, if in radically different ways, as any live performance of any style of music I've ever seen. And while I couldn't find any other reviews of the Atlanta performance online for anybody interested to read, I did find a highly amusing comparison of Obama and Akhnaten (and even a completely unsubstantiated claim that Obama is Akhnaten reincarnate! They even look alike! Color me convinced!)

[And an apology for reposting this - those who know me are aware of my technical struggles, which in this case manifested themselves in the accidental deleting of the previous posting.]