Philip Plass’ Akhnaten at the Met

Music: Philip Glass Libretto: Philip Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, Jerome Robbins Conductor: Karen Kamensek Production Phelim McDermott Set/Production Designer: Tom Pye Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet Choreographer: Sean Gandini Cast: Zachary James; Richard Bernstein; Aaron Blake; Will Liverman; Anthony Roth Costanzo; Disella Larusdottir; J'Nai Bridges; Lindsay Ohse; Karen Chia-Ling Ho; Chrystal E. Williams; Annie Rosen; Olivia Vote; Suzanne Hendrix; Christian J. Conner; Skills Ensemnle
12 November 2019

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR: Please excuse the lateness of this piece but three versions of it that I wrote which were in “Draft ” disappeared thrice so I had to re-write it thrice and re-think every position I took on this version of Akhnaten which will be revived in the www.metopera.org 2021-2022 season.

Egypt has seduced and abandoned many, even a pharaoh who refused to play by the rules.
And now we have the Metropolitan Opera www.metopera.org debut of Brit Phelim McDermott’s production of the third and final opera in Philip Glass’ “portrait” trilogy about iconoclastic scientific — Einstein, in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach ( 1975) — political, Gandhi, in Satyagraha (1979 0 — and religious figures — Akhnaten (1982-1983), which bowed at London’s English National Opera www.eno.org before going to the Los Angeles Opera www.laopera.org, and anything that lands at New York’s Met in Lincoln Center, is always a big deal, especially if the all hallowed New York Times tells you so.

McDermott’s production of the second opera in the trilogy, the all in Sanskrit “Satyagraha : M.K. Gandhi in South Africa 1893-1914 “, wowed audiences in 2008 at the Met, where I saw it — I wrote up this production for www.sequenza21.com, and www.21st-centurymusic.com — but how would McDermott’s take on Akhnaten play in this three thousand eight hundred seat house where “Einstein” was also performed, in 1976?

Sadly, as a mixed bag because even the tiniest decision in any live or film performance is crucial, and an opera about the doomed Akhnaten sets an even higher bar for its composer, his librettists, its performers and its audiences because we know lots about Gandhi but precious little about the son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Amenhotep IV, who lived from c. 1380 to 1332 BCE, re-named himself Akhnaten, and in his seventeen year reign started a religious, political, social, and artistic revolution which outlawed the worship of any of Egypt’s more than two thousand gods save the Aten, which he claimed as his father, and Akhnat– into his approach. And you could say that what he and his co-librettists came up with is even more mysterious and/or recondite because all of the texts here are in Egyptian, Akkadian, and  Hebrew, and its narration is to be performed in the common language of whatever country it’s performed in, though he has frequently set language as sound divorced from obvious meaning(s), especially in other works of his from the 1980’s.

His story of the king who refused to play by the rules should be catnip for any adventurous director and many have tried their hand at it, especially in Europe. I’ve seen three completely different US productions including Aussie David Freeman’s 1984 American premiere one which started at The Houston Grand Opera before it moved to the now defunct New York City Opera where I saw it that year. And to think that his rigorous, even “classically” minimalist production with its simple muted costumes, phallic white totems, loincloth-clad wrestlers, an onstage suggestion of the Nile, and the black-robed NYCO chorus in the pit, bowed a stone’s throw away from McDermott’s over the top one at the Met.

But Oakland Opera Theater’s 2004 production — Michael McDonagh Akhnaten www.culturevulture.net; www.classical-music-review.org — which had a miniscule budget and an eleven piece band somehow managed to project the dramatic juice in the story, text, and music far better than he Met’s encrusted one because it was ” just the facts, Ma’am “, but done with real intelligence and visceral power. Glass’ supposedly “simple” music creates pictures in the mind all by itself. So what went wrong, and what went right?
 McDermott’s take looked a bit stuffy even when it was supposed to look “grand”, and even more damaging is the fact that McDermott looks to me like the UK version of America’s pretender to the director genius throne Peter Sellars. You can’t just do anything you want and call it “art” because everything has to make sense even if it’s non-linear sense, which reminds me of what a friend told me about a visitor to the Butchart Gardens just outside Victoria, B.C, who ran in and exclaimed the first line of Brit John Keats’ limp “poetic romance ” Endymion — ” A thing of beauty is a joy forever: ” but this certainly mostly wasn’t that though I’m sure it will be called iconic — can we please retire that word which means next to nothing? Still it’s good to know that this show packed the house because it’s a great piece which resembles but doesn’t copy Schoenberg’s strategies in his opera Moses und Aron (1930-32, 1951 ), and Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex ( 1926-27). But what was one to make of Sean Gandin’s incessantly juggling Skills Ensemble who came off like postmodern purveyors of the bouncing ball? But what do you expect when the global audience can’t focus on anything for longer than a nanosecond which I daresay is a greater threat to civilization than global warming/climate change?
But the most serious failure here was Bruno Poet’s lighting design which tended to keep just about everything in the dark save Akhnaten’s pivotal “Hymn to the Sun” which ends Act II, and which “gender fluid” — one of our biggest “progressive ” cliches — countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang as the onstage hues changed from soft blue to blazing orange red as he ascended the stairs to adore his god. It was very beautiful, even moving, but conductor Karen Kamensek’s ultra slow tempos in an academically correct  metronomic 100 in 4/4 brought the music to an almost complete standstill — the repeated 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 against 4 + 4  with the additions or subtractions of an accidental or two in the bass line hardly registered — to accomodate McDermott’s theatrically solid but willful approach, and the Met orchestra strained as she elongated Glass’ transparent harmonies to the breaking point. Even more damaging was Costanzo’s interpretation of it as an aria when it’s Akhnaten’s intimate conversation with his god, but people will do anything to shoehorn Glass’ style into the operatic canon.  Bruno Poet didn’t get the physical, metaphysical, and theological meanings of light which were at the heart of Akhnaten’s crazy or inspired re-ordering of Egyptian society. Poet completely ignored the stage directions in the libretto in “The Temple” which opens Act II — “the roof of the ( Amon ) Temple is pulled off as the light of ‘the Aten’ pours into what once was ‘the holy of holies’ ” which you can see in clips of Candace Evans’ Indiana University production on www.youtube.com with far better conductor Arthur Fagen who did what the score said. You don’t have to make the action literal but what McDermott substituted in “The Temple ” was amateurish in the extreme with Star Wars looking jugglers in stylized jodhpurs as Costanzo and Icelandic soprano Disella Larusdottir as his mother Queen Tye warded off the Amon priests with — I’m not making this up — a peacock feather duster. It’s a very violent scene with quickly changing meters — 9/8, 2/4, 3/4,4/4. 6/4, 12/8.5/4, 12/8, 6/8 — in E minor, which makes it even more powerful because writing in the minor keeps the lid on when the music wants to boil over. The staging of the equally violent “Attack and Fall”, which forms the fulcrum of Act III — 7/8,12/8, 6/4,4/4 — in F minor was, if possible even worse, with clotted groupings of the chorus and the king’s six grotesquely costumed daughters who looked like mummies on a drugged out stroll maybe because slo mo is just the latest theatrical cliche. And no one seems to get the fact that much of Glass’ music gets its expressive force from the tension between frequently fast moving rhythmic figures and slow-moving harmonies. And to think that Kamensek told her Met charges not to push towards the downbeat because she thinks Glass writes non-Westen music? The preceding scene ” The Family ” stage left, was garishly over lit and Glass’ carefully wrought overlapping lines here sounded monotonous rather than expressive.

It’s often been said that the devil is in the details and McDermott and company added several very effective historically grounded ones.His staging of ” The Funeral”,  which opens Act I, came after the orchestra played rhythmically inexact and sloppily contrasted figures in the “Prelude” showed Amenhotep’s vital organs being removed and placed in canopic jars for his mummification, with his heart being weighed against a feather which the Egyptians saw as a test of virtue. Kevin Pollard’s frequently sumptuous — even with dead baby heads sewn in— but inaccurate costumes here and elsewhere were fun, especially at the end of “Act I, Scene 2 — ” The Coronation of Akhnaten” where Costanzo was ritually and meticulously dressed by the Skills until he ended up looking like a dolled up Infant of Prague, after having been nude, prostrate on the floor, as Glass’ music seemed to come from and go to eternity which isn’t a mean feat. But several of McDermott’s choices weren’t thought through though bass Zachary James jolted the show to life with his commanding narration as the Scribe but his narration as the Scribe sounded thin and rushed and didn’t fit into the music’s minutely timed measures in Act III which was almost a complete wash after strong moments in Act I and II which were however sometimes upended by Kamensek’s conducting which made one focus on repetition per se, and not on what the repetitions meant in structural and dramatic terms. 

Akhnaten is one of the great pieces of the last part of the twentieth century but McDermott’s overcooked and underdone production, though it will surely be “the go to ” one everyone “googles”, alas isn’t it. Still there are many ways to stage a work and this one’s smart and dumb moves are as transparent as the score. It’s entertaining which every theatrical / musical piece must be but misses the heart of what it’s about — light, transcendence, and power — and McDermott mistook the forest for the trees.The singing throughout was mostly strong, but not especially memorable, and Costanzo was more effective as a singing actor than a singer per se. And it didn’t help that Michael Palumbo’s chorus was frequently parked mid-backstage which undercut its full visceral projection, and most of the production looked like a letterbox film. It was almost all horizontal with no vertical space to give it height and added depth and weight.

Akhnaten was a paradoxical figure who had to be either mad and/or ruthless to get what he wanted. Oper Dortmund’s 2019 production —  Echnaton — was directed by Italian choreographer Giuseppe Spota — www.giuseppespota.com — and, judged from its trailer, photos, and reviews looks to have been a far more sophisticated and thought through one than Mc Dermott’s. It’s about movement but isn’t every musical work? Spota’s production seemed to be built around basics. Light in darkness and darkness in light. Akhnaten gave himself to this light which was something far bigger than himself and he expected his people to do the same. Spota’s gestures for his performers here were pared to the bone, his chorus dressed in simple costumes as part of one essential whole. Heads bowed in devotion or raised in subservience to this pharaoh and his god, The stage was impersonally epic — huge — but the affect was undeniably personal and — impersonal. But then the Germans, when they’re inspired, have often had a far better grasp of history than the Brits, and are usually much better at putting it onstage, History saddled them. History saddled Egypt, and still does.

“Opened are the double doors of the horizon / unlocked are its bolts / Clouds darken the horizon / The stars reign down / ”

END 12.xi-2019 — 15.iii.2020

Michael McDonagh’s third book of his poems with www.garybukovnik.com All Kinds of Weather ( 2016 ) is available from www.norfolkpress.com. His first Before I Forget can be seen by appointment only at Bryant Park www.nypl.org

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