Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten”

March 2, 2013

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.