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Akhnaten at Long Beach Opera

Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass 

If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’sAkhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.

At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.

The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.

Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.

Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.

This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnatenand similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).

This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.

Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.

The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures.

The Amon High Priest is the focal point of the funeral scene and the attack on Akhnaten’s city in Act 3, and Thompson understood Mitisek’s minimal, gradual staging (not always easy for a tenor to do) for both these scenes. His part is accompanied by a bass (Ralph Cato in the role of Aye, Nefertiti’s father) and baritone (Roberto Perlas Gomez as the General, Horemhab). They sing nearly all the time in rhythmic unison, yet Thompson was in his upper range during these trios and stood out from his companions (who provided admirable support). His vocal part in the Temple scene of Act 2 is more independent, and underscored by a tritone-fourth dissonance that must have struck listeners in the 1980s as some of the most chromatically inflected music Glass had written up to that point. Even today, the harsh dissonance in the context of the triadic language Glass uses in Akhnaten is a striking effect. Akhnaten’s key is usually A minor; could this clash in the harmony (Ab-Eb-Bb) represent the conflict between Akhnaten’s monotheism and the establishment pantheism of the priests?

The chorus is a key component to the opera; the choruses Glass composed for the opera are some of the most rousing or beautiful choruses in contemporary opera (right up there with the choruses from Nixon in China andDeath of Klinghoffer). The Long Beach Opera Chorus was remarkable for its tight ensemble and terrific intonation, all sung while building a city or storming its walls in stylized battle.

Andreas Mitisek (designer, director, conductor and artistic director) is probably the hardest working man in American opera, outside of Placido Domingo. His reading of the score with Glass’s unusual pit ensemble (no violins–an orchestration decision arrived at by figuring out how many instruments could fit into the Stuttgart theater serving as a temporary home for the opera there) was heartfelt, his tempos well chosen. At times his musicians weren’t quite up to their task; the low brass had difficulties in several places, and the viola section on occasion sounded like—well, a group of violas trying to play in tune. Overall, the instrumental and vocal performances did justice to Glass’s score.

In Glass’s expansively scaled music, the introduction of a new pitch, harmony or timbre becomes a significant marker. Mitisek’s staging and Brodie’s choreography is likewise slow, but goal-oriented. In the opening prelude, dancers stand frozen left to right across the stage, assuming the stylized shapes of Egyptians as depicted in their ancient art. Slowly a character (a goddess? a priestess?) moves from right to left across the stage. As she passes each dancer, their stance and limb posture slowly moves into a different position, and one by one they follow her back across the stage to exit on the right as the music comes to a close. In Act 2, Scene 3 dancers and chorus members construct the city of Akhetaten in devotion to the Aten. Brick by brick, abstract columns, walls, and arches are built up until, by the end of the scene, an abstract representation of the city has emerged.

The real jaw-dropper in this show, however, was the interactive video projection by Frieder Weiss. In a quarter-century of attending theater and opera, I have never seen video so well integrated into a production. A field of stars projected on a scrim parts when characters move across the stage, as if they were pushing through the points of light. Rectangles slide down a large ramp, as if falling, and when singers slowly walk down the ramp, they appear to be somehow moving even though their feet are firmly planted on the ramp. Bolts of light drop from the heavens into characters’s outraised hands. In the final scene, Akhnaten, his mother, and his wife ascend the ramp, raised one story above the floor, its end terminating in air. As Glass’s music comes to rest on A’s and E’s (no third), projections on the singers make them appear to dissolve into ghost-like blurs, which then evaporate into blackness. I have never seen video work like this—it was absolutely mesmerizing.

A few technical issues blemish this remarkable show. Foremost was the speaker buzz which rudely interjected itself over the music. Glass requires a narrator who describes, in the audience’s language, what the characters are singing (he used ancient languages and Hebrew for most of his sung texts). Pete Taylor did a fine job acting as the “translator” or tour guide (the last scene is set in modern times among the ruins of Akhnaten’s city, and Glass used a Fodor’s travel book as a text). However, the incessant hum from the speaker undercut the solemnity of Taylor’s narration.

Long Beach Opera makes magical things happen on a miniscule budget, but couldn’t they have found or devised props that resemble stone blocks instead using folded cardboard boxes? The seams were painfully obvious.

Glass devised Akhnaten with a three-act structure, but LBO crams Acts 1 and 2 together without any intermission, blurring the obvious formal structure of the acts and overly testing the patience of listeners unable to adapt to Glass’s time scale. It would have been nice to have that intermission, but the opera still works without it.

That said, if you want to see an opera-a damn fine opera- in which all of its components—music, libretto, staging—are thoroughly contemporary, go to Long Beach and catch the final performance of Akhnaten.

Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye prepare to journey to the afterlife 

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