« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Opera review: Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten' at Long Beach Opera at last

March 20, 2011 |  4:57 pm

Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten,” his third opera, had its premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, in a 1984 Achim Freyer production of such visual splendor it nearly the overwhelmed mesmerizing music and even the ancient Egyptian pharaoh who radicalized ideas about art and god. Glass has written more than 20 operas since then, but "Akhnaten" remains special.

Saturday night, Long Beach Opera presented a new production of “Akhnaten” at Terrace Theater. The adventurous company hardly has the resources to match those of Stuttgart’s state-supported Württembergische Staatstheater, where the Freyer production stayed in the repertory for several years. Long Beach gets just one repeat on March 27. And as he often does, LBO’s artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, began the evening Saturday with a whimsical fundraising pitch. Then he put on other hats -- conductor, stage director and production designer.

Mitisek was not responsible for the intermittently splendid choreography. And he had help from a video whizz who created dazzling stage pictures out of thin air. Still, this had the feel, for better and worse, of a one-man show not fully worked out.

It was an unevenly sung, staged and played “Akhnaten.” The budget constraints took their toll in a reduced orchestra with many of the brass parts consigned to an incontinent synthesizer. But none of that could lessen the significance of the first full-scale production in Southern California of a major opera by America’s best-known and most influential opera composer, erasing a shocking cultural omission.

“Akhnaten” completed Glass’ trilogy of “portrait” operas that began with his groundbreaking Robert Wilson collaboration, “Einstein on the Beach,” in 1976. “Satyagrapha,” Glass’ Gandhi opera, followed four years later. After having looked at science and politics, the composer turned to religion.

Akhnaten, who reigned for 17 years in the 14th century BC, radicalized Egyptian society by replacing its panoply of gods with a single deity and by ushering in a representational style of painting the human figure. He was apparently a strange figure with an elongated face and large breasts. Glass made him a countertenor.

The libretto is based on ancient texts that are sung in Egyptian, Accadian and Hebrew, and the opera is presented as a series of tableau. A scribe sets many scenes reading in the language of the audience. Akhnaten is shown in domestic bliss with his beautiful wife Nefertiti, and as the builder of cities and temples.  Akhnaten sings a hymn to Aten, the sun god, of such stunning Handelian beauty that it has entered into the standard countertenor concert repertory.

It also shows a rule having grown remote in his own personal heaven, which leads to his downfall. He is overthrown by a mob, and the opera ends with tourists in Egypt visiting Akhnaten’s ruins, while the ghosts of Akhnaten and Nefertiti return bewildered.

Resisting what must have been a temptation to update to Tahrir Square, Mitisek has kept his production timeless. He places atmospheric reliance on the interactive video design of Frieder Weiss, who projects images on characters in plain, mostly white, dress. Backgrounds evoke starry skies or the squiggly lines of an Etch-a-Sketch, and can be fun to watch. But this also gives the opera a science-fiction look that diminishes any historical resonance with the present.

There are lovely scenes, such as the prologue with dancers from Nannette Brodie Dance Theater in still poses. Throughout, Brodie supplies transfixing slow-motion movement, although some of it gets a little too close to the esthetic of Robert Wilson for comfort. Akhnaten sings his hymn floating in a balloon.

Jochen Kowalski, who was a countertenor sensation in the '80s for his rock-persona-like flamboyance, might have then made an intriguing Akhnaten when the opera was new. A fresh, steady voice is needed. In ensembles, though, mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell (Nefertiti) and soprano Oxana Senina (Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother)  surrounded Kowalski with the beauty of sure high notes. Amplified from offstage, actor Pete Taylor read the Scribe’s lines with stilted iambic accents.

The chorus sounded a brave bunch, and no doubt the orchestra was, too, given the difficult task of counting Glass’ repetitions. They got lost a couple of times, and in the last act ran out of steam. It was hard to tell exactly what was and what was not amplified. But the synthesizer balances were off putting.

Mitisek also seemed to cut down on the number of repetitions, and he made the curious decision (economic?) of  providing only one intermission, between the second and third acts, which threw the opera out of proportion.

Glass fashioned rhythmic grooves with maze-like intricacies. You need time to get lost in them and you need time to let being lost sink in. Then you need time to catch your breath before returning to the labyrinth.

Long Beach may not have been the site of an operatically transcendent episode of “Lost” on Saturday. But it filled a big Glass gap, and it offered reason to wonder why those twenty-something other operas remain locally lost to us.


Philip Glass Festival primer

Long Beach Opera's Andreas Mitisek thinks outside the house

Back to the future: Akhnaten and Nerfirtiti meet the Obamas

-- Mark Swed

"Akhnaten." Long Beach Opera, Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. 2 p.m., March 27. $25- $110. (562) 436-3661 or www.longbeachopera.org.

Photo: Joachim Kowalski as Akhnaten at Long Beach Opera. Credit Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.


Comments () | Archives (13)

This review incorrectly states that "most of the brass parts [were] consigned to an incontinent synthesizer". This is not correct. The orchestra included 2 trumpets, 2 trombones and a tuba, in addition to the french horns listed in the program.

You're reviews are, in my opinion, always fair and reasonable.

I was there at the Akhnaten performance. I know Akhnaten too well and have seen Akhnaten (you are right: had to travel across the country and to Europe to see these performances). I noticed the limitations of the LBO. The only real issue I had was the volume of the narrator - but I was impressed that Andreas Mitisek had an interpretation of Akhnaten. I want to experience an interpretation - and this was something to experience.

I cannot see the 2nd performance but my brother will attend it to have a balanced view of what the LBO can do with this piece. I think it needs the second viewing to put into perspective what the LBO is trying to do.

I DO APPLAUD the LBO and Andreas Mitisek for their risk taking. Such a small place attempting to pull off Akhnaten is an impressive endeavor.
¡KUDOS to the LBO!

*I enjoyed their Nixon in China... last time... they need to keep doing this!

Teri is correct, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (both doubling oboe d'amore), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 french horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion (3 players) were all in the pit. The synth was doing it's own thing. The only reduction in orchestra size was in the strings. That being said, in my opinion the violas and cellos did an excellent job with Glass' demanding score.

The LBO deserves credit for the attempt. Much of the production was enjoyable and effective. But Mark is too kind to the countertenor who dragged down every musical number in which he attempted to sing. Certainly the LBO could find a performer to handle what is after all the title role and match the otherwise very find solo singing?

In spite of this unenthusiastic (performance-wise, anyway) review, I am very excited about seeing Akhnaten next Sunday. I saw the trilogy in New York many years ago and I'm happy to have the chance again to get swept into Glass's swirls and currents for an afternoon.

Also, I saw his solo piano performance in OC last Monday-- which was magical and very moving.

I would never fault a production because of its budget - or at least I would try not to. LBO probably didn't have the money to "take us back" to Egypt, and I was was perfectly comfortable with the modern-day style costumes. However, the video projections really marred the show for me. It wasn't very sensitive to the text and it made the stage look like something out of "Tron." I found it very incongruous and distracting from the music... which could have used some extra volume.

But the biggest problem of the evening was the loud buzzing that started with opening curtain and kept going throughout 85% or more of the show. This is not acceptable with any budget. The buzzing was louder than the singers and orchestra at times and impossible to tune out. I suspect it had something to do with the projection system and if that's the case, they should turn off the video and run the show without it. It would make for a stronger presentation overall.

When I read a review, I would like it to tell me whether a performance is worth attending. This review left me confused at best. There was a bit of faint praise and a few negatives, but no conclusion.

Yes the performance had faults, but my wife and I both thought the performance was visually and musically stunning. Suffice it to say, we enjoyed it tremendously. It was definitely worth seeing and hearing!

I find it interesting that a respected critic seemingly can't tell the difference between a synthesizer and a brass section. What chance does the general public, or the musician for that matter, have if the refined ear of Mr. Swed can't tell the difference. Many of the musicians in the Long Beach Opera are friends and I know that there was, in fact, a brass section there. The parts were not played by a synth. There were two trumpets, two horns, two trombones and a tuba playing. This inability of even the trained ear of a critic to distinguish between real acoustic instruments and an electronic one is troubling...
It doesn't bode well for live music, unless Mr. Swed was at a different performance. One wonders which opera he saw and heard.

This was the worst piece of drivel I have seen in 5 decades of attending opera, ballet and theatre on multiple continents. It communicated: nothing! Glaciers move faster than this production. At the intermission, people were commenting how you could close your eyes for 5 mins to rest them from the obnoxious assault of blinking lights that would have sent an epileptic to the emergency room - and nothing on stage had changed. It was emotionless. There was no tension. One entire act consisted of the repetition of the single word Amon. Geez Louise it was horrible. No sets, and the costumes looked like Jedi wannabees, but since you really couldn't see them given the lighting, it didn't matter so much. Nobody around me applauded; one whole group came late and left early. The music is monotonous and simplistic; I found it boring and unsophisticated. There was one interesting moment when the main clarinet split a reed!

I fled at the intermission, and wish I had spent that $100 bucks on buying chickens for Africa. Do not buy a ticket, do not waste your money. If you already bought a ticket, stay home with a good book. If you go, see if the end of the second act doesn't look like the inside of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor #3 dispensing radiation!

The Long Beach Opera is deserving of our support (and attendance) for presenting operas which challenge the audience to go "out of the box" and experience musical dramas not presented elsewhere. Our entire family, including grandchildren, come from the San Fernando Valley, for these productions. This performance of Ahknaten is probably the only one we will ever see in Los Angeles, and we are glad that we came. The next two, by Shostakovich and Lang, fit into the same category. We commend the LBO and plan to attend. You should, too!

A fine performance really. Along with last season's Nixon, LBO and Andreas Mitisek are establishing a fine tradition with late 20th C operas. Sunday's matinee had a substitue counter-tenor with very good musical chops. The Frieder Weiss light show was thoughtful and effective given the minimal props. The band played well, the balances were fine, there was no buzzing and the orchestra, including the wind/brass sections, did not lose count. Put this production in a smaller house and the Glassites would have clammered for more. As it was, those of us who recognized Mitisek would be true to the artistic integrity of the piece were rewarded with an solid, memorable reading.

Like Mozart Man (above) I saw the second performance this past Sunday, and it seems that many of the problems mentioned about the opener were resolved. I heard no buzzing, and the orchestra was reasonably tight (given the extreme difficulty of the score). Perhaps even Kowalski's (Akhnaten) rough voice on opening night was explained in that he couldn't sing on Sunday, having succombed to a cold.

While the decision to have Kowalski mime his role while the substitute sang behind him most likely was done because the backup had no time to learn the blocking, an extra layer of poignancy may have been created. If I were a counter-tenor and lost a rare opportunity to perform the sun-hymn and beautiful trios in this opera, I'd be crushed, and I thought I detected pain in his miming that simultaneously reinforced Akhnaten's own troubles in the story.

All three leads and three supports were strong, and soprano Oxana Senina's clear, piercing and athletic voice particularly caught my ear. I adore every note of this opera, and flew down from Oakland just for it as I may never get to see it live again. Kudos to Mr. Mitisek and LBO for this achievement.

The buzzing noise was the fans from the computer equipment which was placed in the center rear of the orchestra. We were there opening night, seated very close to the equipment and it ruined our evening. We saw several other people get up and leave the hall during the first act after flashing dirty looks at the equipment and its operators. We were unable to hear about half the music because of the noise, left the performance at intermission and have requested a refund.

Kowalski was awful. What we could hear of his singing was never on pitch and it sounded like he was actually fishing for the note on occasion. The voice was frayed and any long notes began to drift flat. The only times he was on pitch was when he lunged at a high note.


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.