Opera review: Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten' at Long Beach Opera at last
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, 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.
-- 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.