Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten”

I first heard Philip Glass‘ music when I experienced his score for Koyaanisqatsi. From the first notes I was completely enthralled. Glass’ music is highly repetitive and uses arpeggios and sawing motions on strings to create a trance-like state in the listener. It was a perfect accompaniment to the film, the entire experience of which left me profoundly moved. The ending is absolutely mesmerizing. Unforgettable.

I believe he wrote an operatic version of The Fall of the House of Usher. That’s what I recall, at any rate. I was in Dunn Meadow doing…something…and listened to the whole thing on WFIU on my crappy Walkman headphones. It was incredible. His music just transports me to a completely different place.

So I was very excited to learn last fall that IU opera was including Glass’ Akhnaten as part of their season. I went to see it last night with my friend Mike. And what a disappointment it was.

We went for the pre-show talk which was given by an IU professor of Middle Eastern studies. He gave an overview of the historical Akhenaten’s life (pharoah of the 18th dynasty in Egypt who is history’s first recorded monotheist.) The talk was fascinating. If it had a Philip Glass score and maybe a few sock puppets to show off costumes, it would’ve been a complete show right there.

IU opera always has great production values and Akhnaten was no different. The stage included a small “river” which was used to nice effect, the costumes were stunning, and there was a huge golden sun disk (Akhenaten worshipped Aten, the disk of the sun) that descended from the catwalks along with life-giving rays terminating in hands that just took my breath away. I started studying Egyptology in 1990 after a trip to the British Museum where I fell in love with the art and culture. That was also when I was being introduced to Paganism, and my very first ritual called on Egyptian gods. It was wonderful to see so many of these still images brought to life on stage.

As the first notes started in the violins, I felt myself getting sucked in. During the overture, chorus members playing Egyptians caught up in the Arab Spring moved slowly from vignette to vignette. I was a little confused but was willing to go along for the ride and just see where it would take me. Unfortunately it presaged things to come.

There’s no getting around it: Akhnaten is just a poor piece of work. Glass’ music is good but not a revelation. The killer is the writing. It was an example of why people hate studying history. All it did was recite the known facts of Akenaten’s life. It moved from one static tableau to another. Supertitles: “The crowd gathers for Amenhotep III‘s funeral.” The chorus gathers for a tableau of the funeral. “Aknaten prepares to be crowned.” Akhnaten prepares to be crowned. There was virtually no character present, no emotion, the barest suggestion of a plot, no emotional consequences of any action, and certainly no sub-plot.

The historical Akhenaten turned thousands of years of Egyptian history on its head when he moved the capital city and declared that all the traditional gods of Egypt were to be replaced by the single god Aten. He was married to Nefertiti, history’s most beautiful woman, and reigned for about 15 years. He was considered a heretic and all attempts were made to expunge his reign from Egypt’s history. You’d think there would be something to work with there.

I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Just in the first ten minutes, a bastard declares his intention to eliminate his legitimate half-brother in order to seize his inheritance, Lear sets up a contest whereby his daughters are to compete for shares of his kingdom based on their declarations of love for him, two treacherous daughters lay it on thick and please him, his beloved Cordelia refuses to play along, and he banishes her forever. And it just goes on from there. Shakespeare takes the barest historical event (“king abdicates in favor of daughters”) and gives it breath and scope in one of the English language’s greatest tragedies. He does it by infusing history with real people’s thoughts, actions, and emotions. And from a strictly dramatic point of view, he includes a sub-plot which explores themes related to the main plot. Now that’s theatre!

Akhnaten reminded me of medieval tableaux that would greet monarchs on their entrances into cities. When they came to significant crossroads, they would find an elaborate stage setting of a particular virtue (such as “virginity” for Elizabeth I). Costumed performers would declaim flowery poems on the topic, relating it to the monarch in a sycophantic fashion. Not exactly compelling stuff. But this is what Akhnaten consists of: Tableau after tableau. Snooze. Whoever created the blocking did a masterful job, desperately trying to make something happen onstage, but it still wasn’t enough. I kept flashing back to the last time I was in the MAC, listening to Carmina Burana, and how it was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. And here I was writing a blog post in my head instead of being transported by the art onstage.

One thing to be said about the piece is that it’s a great work for chorus members. They are onstage almost the whole time. It’s possible they sing more than the leads do. And—bonus!—the music is so repetitive that it’s easier to memorize than standard fare. As usual for IU opera, the chorus was fantastic. Too bad they had such bad material to work with.

It was at least 30 minutes before Akhnaten began to sing. Possibly 40 minutes. Forty minutes of orchestral and choral work before the main character even opens his mouth! Ridiculous. The one positive side of that is that it gave me plenty of time to imagine his baritone voice. And then he opens up and—surprise!—he’s a countertenor! Mike and I guessed this was a choice based on the historical art depicting Akhenaten as having “feminized” features such as wide hips and a slight bustline. Nicholas Tamagna played Akhnaten and he had a beautiful, strong voice with just enough vibrato to carry clearly above the pit.

Writing a countertenor part also made for interesting trios with the two female characters in the show—something I’ve never seen before.

The one emotionally compelling component of the opera was at the opening of the second act where Akhnaten and Nefertiti sang a beautiful duet. It was masterfully blocked on a slowly revolving section of the stage, with the characters dressed in flowing toga-like costumes. They slid over and around each other, depicting a deep and sensitive love. The music at times had a medieval feel as the countertenor sang against the mezzo. It was a standout sequence in an otherwise arid wasteland.

The orchestra was pretty good, particularly the strings, but Glass is very hard on the horns—I heard a lot of fluffed notes, which is highly unusual for the Jacobs school.

There was this weird interject of a setting of a psalm. There was an historical hymn from ancient Egypt that informed the creation of the psalm found in the Old Testament. So Glass included a setting of it in the opera. The psalm, not the original hymn. The chorus came into the house (I’ve never seen this at an IU show), clothed in what perhaps were supposed to be Jewish tribal garments. They faced the pit and sang the psalm in Hebrew while Renaissance paintings of biblical themes were projected onto the scrim. It was bizarre. Mike and I conjectured that perhaps the treatment was to emphasize that we were jumping out of the timeline of the plot, but we agreed it was just weird.

The libretto had four authors but there were at least two scenes where the lyrics appeared to be “ah.” No lie. For like five minutes. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” Thrilling stuff.

Mike said the supertitles were just phoned in and I couldn’t agree more. At one point the chorus was singing in Akkadian (how often do you hear Akkadian?) and the supertitles said, “the people sing in Akkadian.” What?? What the hell were they saying? As Mike remarked, “show, don’t tell.” That summed up the failings of the show.

We had great seats and only had to pay student rates for the tickets, thanks to Mike’s ID. We had that great pre-show talk. The setting was pretty. And I had a decent chocolate chip cookie. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t worth $32.50. I will likely never risk a Philip Glass opera again. Thanks to Mike for making it bearable.

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4 Responses to Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten”

  1. Thank you so much for coming last night! I am the Akhnaten, Nicholas Tamagna, and thank you for your compliments. I am glad you felt the staging was masterful (given the material) and it was well sung. I am curious if you noticed some of the characterizations we tried to overlay into rather bare bones writing. Such as Queen Tye having a “relationship” with her son, Akhnaten not wanting to at first accept the crown of his father and contemplating running, the usage of the “ah” scenes to show breakdowns in communication and the marriage between Akhnaten and Nefertiti, and the daughters. Our fabulous director tried to keep visual interest and character where she could find it in our portrayal because of the nature of the “tableau” or ceremonious effect of the piece. We tried to imbue emotions over the “ahs” and create subtexts with certain gestures and glances. Just curious if you would also feel similarly about the other operas in the trilogy (Einstein and Satyagraha), its definitely a minimalist style of dramatic and musical writing and the jumping around in time is completely this productions way of creating more out of the piece. But generally Glass loves to write in more anachronism. We tried, as all actors and directors try, to make a statement for the piece and its validity, even if we find faults with it ourselves. But this piece really grew on me. I do believe and hope you got what we were after, but understand the piece simply still fell short for you. Also re: supertitles, I think the concept was to keep you more focused on stage then looking up for a translation of every line, as also most of the texts were praising God and saying how great he is. At any rate, I really appreciate your thoughtful criticisms and hope this doesn’t deter you from future explorations of Glass opera. If you haven’t seen his latest opera, it’s available on Medici.tv, just premiered in Feb. in Madrid, called The Perfect American (about Walt Disney). Anyhow if you care to reply, i can also be reached privately at nicholas.tamagna@gmail.com. Thank you!

    Nicholas Tamagna
    nicholastamagna.com

  2. An Akhnater says:

    Three notes:

    1. In Friday’s performance, the image projector malfunctioned and was not working for the first five-ish minutes. Thus, some confusion about the opening Arab Spring scenes is certainly expected!

    2. I’m sure most of the people in this production would attest that the repetitive music makes it INCREDIBLY challenging to learn and memorize. One missed subtle change in texture, rhythm, text, or notes (of which there are many in this work) is a recipe for disaster. It requires an immense level of focus that, unlike in most operas, is completely separate from text translations and dramatic impetus.

    3. Regarding the exclusion of most direct translations in the supertitles, it was a directorial decision due to the fact that most of the texts were poetic in nature and used to evoke an atmosphere more than to advance the plot in any way. For example, the translation of the Akkadian sung by the priests and chorus during the attack and fall of the temple is as follows:

    Let the king care for his land
    The land of the king will be lost
    All of it will be taken from me
    There is hostility to me.
    As far as the lands of Seir even to Carmel,
    There is peace to all the regents.
    But to me there is hostility
    Although a man sees the facts
    Yet the two eyes of the king, my lord, do not see
    For hostility is firm against me.
    As sure as there is a ship in the midst of the sea
    The might arm of the king
    Will seize Nahrima and Kapasi.
    But now the Apiru are taking
    The cities of the king.
    No regent is left to the king, my lord,
    All are lost.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! It fascinates me to see the wide range of opinions provoked by this unusual work.

  3. cairril says:

    Hello to both of you! Thanks very much for your comments. First I want to share some comments a friend of mine left on Facebook:

    “I was there too! But had a totally different impression. I thought the production was misguided. I know most of this music like the back of my hand, and it was clear to me that the people staging do not get Philip Glass. The “ah ah ah” part you didn’t like is central to all his work–because he’s not about narrative. At all. So when someone tries to lay a conventional narrative frame over (say, by flashing images of a mishmash of Readers’ Digest illustration quality biblical images), it fails–utterly. The treatment of the Scribe was also totally absurd. Did they listen to the music?? There’s no baton-twirling and Hoosier joking in the music. The emotional impact comes not from traditional plot and character, but from the music. I think the music requires a very–artificial? Staged? Almost Greek–treatment of movement and speech. The cast was not skilled enough to pull off the physical synchronization of stylized movement that would allow us to transcend our expectations of character. Only the guy playing Akhnaten had the power to make his walking across stage look like more than a Hoosier tromp. The costumes were also too corny. I also heard shocking mistakes in some of the music–not often, and those problems weren’t as distressing to me as the weirdly conventional staging. But–bottom line–if you were expecting narrative lyrics, a story line, and emphasis on characterization, you won’t get that from any Glass opera. You could skip Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach too. Try Liquid Days instead! ”

    After I read her post, I remembered that there was a point in the production where I had a clear vision of a Greek mask approach that would have been perfect. I think it’s this stylized approach that would have been more satisfying because it would clearly delineate the work as “not your conventional fare.”

    On to your specific comments.

    Nicholas, I want to reiterate how impressed I was by your voice. The only other countertenor I’ve heard live is Daniel Bubek and I would definitely put you in his class.

    You ask if the characterizations came across and sadly I have to say no. I wasn’t getting any of the things you mention. The one scene where more complex signals were being sent was when Akhnaten overthrows the old gods and is yelling at the priest who’s cowering on the floor. I thought the blocking and reactions were very exaggerated, which fits that more stylized vision I have of the piece. The delivery and acting gelled with the music.

    I have not seen any other Glass operas (have only listened), so I don’t have anything to compare it to.

    “An Aknater,” thanks also for your comments. I appreciate your points about the repetition. I only know from my experience that I find it easier to memorize these types of pieces when I have “blocks” to work with. There is a Polynesian chant that Kaia sings that is very repetitive, with just the occasional jump up or down here and there. I can memorize blocks at a time that follow the same pattern, and then just mentally flag the bits that break the pattern. I only speak from my experience — I am sure everyone has their own approach to memorization.

    Thank you so much for the Akkadian translation — I LOVE it! I wish this had been included in the supertitles. I think it really would’ve enriched the performance. Sure, you can reduce it to “they pray,” but what I want to know is exactly how they’re praying. What is their worldview? What are they responding to? What are they asking for? How do they see themselves in relationship to the divine? The translation that you provide gives so much texture and places the characters in a specific-yet-universal context that allows me to relate to them. Otherwise I just have the uncomfortable sensation that something important is happening and I’m on the outside of it. I think Glass’ music supplies “atmosphere” all on its own and needs something in the visual and verbal language to make it rise above a simple orchestral piece and become a staged performing art.

    Thank you both again — if you have additional thoughts, I’d love to hear them!

  4. I think a Glass opera is a very hard sell for an audience not deeply familiar with his choral work–we all know the music, but the choral work can be a surprise. And though I am not a musician, it seems like it would be incredibly challenging to perform, to maintain that intense regularity and then know just how to add the extra feeling and the changes in paces when it accelerates or shifts into a different mode. It’s all about texture, nuance, and time. I have to second that Nicholas Tamagna was superb. He seemed to have the best sense, along with the woman who sang the part of the mother, of how to inhabit Glass’s music. I was waiting with held breath for The Window of Appearances, and it was just wonderful–such an experience to hear it live. I had tears in my eyes for much of the music. The “ah ah ah” is so beautiful to me! I’m embarrassed to read my hypercritical comments on the staging here (I was the rude Facebook friend). I rejected the staging so strongly because this music is personally so close to my heart. I find it very emotional, not despite being abstract, but because it’s abstract–to me, it’s more like a Rothko painting, or listening to a song in a foreign language that you can’t understand but find yourself moved by, as you supply the “story” yourself. This is a monolithic piece that is so much about time and the epic scale of history–it needs to be removed from the close-up, immediate coziness of character and story to convey that perspective. It’s so rare that we get to see this kind of music live. I was frustrated that the audience didn’t get a chance to experience it without the sort of Cliff’s Notes that the staging was trying to provide. I can’t help but wonder, if the production had released us from that narrative obligation, if more people could have absorbed the emotional aspect of the music. Einstein on the Beach is so far removed from narrative, for example, that it would be crazy to try to pin one on it. In Glass’s book about the trilogy, he (or someone) talks about how even though Einstein doesn’t have a narrative, people kept coming up afterwards to share their interpretation of the “story.” He says something like, “The point wasn’t what it meant. The point was that people found it meaningful.”

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