LA Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten is a wondrous event and modern opera extravaganza. There are no supertitles and barely any comprehensible words (except for occasional summaries by the Scribe played majestically by the powerful Zachary James). The audience is taken on a journey to ancient Egypt, 14th century B.C., in a most artistic and stylized manner, which is a feast for the eyes and ears as well as the heart.
The pageantry is composed of carefully choreographed symbolic movements and costumes and includes traditional Egyptian enigmatic writing, quotes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, headdresses and most notably dance-like, Cirque du Soleil-type juggling. And it is all done with slow - slow and deliberate - movement, which seems to intensify the grandeur and significance of the historic events and the characters’ emotional drives. In fact the slowness adds a meditative quality to the entire piece.
The chorus under Grant Gershon’s direction adds immeasurably to the atmosphere. In many scenes the stage is packed with nearly 75 performers moving and singing these unknown phrases and yet keeping together in one spirit. Kudos to director Phelim McDermott for keeping everyone moving - all at the same pace.
Adding to all that, the title character is played by one of the rare performers in the world who is able to sing countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo. This amounts to a guy sounding like a soprano. Why, you might ask? All I can say is it totally works. His angelic voice serves to elevate his spirituality and purity and is gorgeous both solo and when harmonizing with his love, Nefertiti, J’Nai Bridges, and his mother, Queen Tye, Stacey Tappan.
Oh, and did I mention the nudity? The young Akhnaten is anointed and lifted into his kingly garbs by many courtly hands, in a ceremony which makes him seem compliant and humble. Since the movements are so slow, the audience gets a good look at his private parts, so thus we are certain that these sounds are coming from a male body.
It may be hard to imagine all these diverse elements together in one production, but they are all here and with Phillip Glass’s intense music, which heightens the emotion and moves the large story forward.
Akhnaten was a pharaoh who changed the course of history by doing away with all the many revered gods and goddesses of his time. He believed in the one god, the Sun god, Aten. Akhnaten built a city “The City of the Horizon of Aten.” He fell in love with the beautiful Nefertiti and as the Scribe tells us, wanted to spend his days gazing on her beauty.
Nefertiti, played by the gorgeous and enchanting mezzo soprano J’Nai Bridges is also perfect in her casting. The drawn-out love duet sung with no words but pure feeling is masterful. She and Akhaten are clothed in bright red draping gauze, which becomes entwined. I would have liked to see and hear even more from this rising star.
The king and his family live blissfully as they become more secluded in their devotional ways. Meanwhile enemies are gaining force. He is no longer a combative person, and he must pay the ultimate price for his beliefs and way of life.
In the statuesque death scene, his somewhat frail and draped body is held tenderly by the Scribe. It is reminiscent of the Pieta of Leonardo de Vinci when Mary held the body of her dying son.
Indeed some believe that Akhnaten is a forerunner of Jesus himself. And this type of symbolism also enriches the story and historical perspective.
There are touches of modern-day culture throughout. In the opening scene a large group of scientists surround the mummy like figure of Akhnaten’s father Amenhotep, who has just died. They are preparing the body for burial and the next life. The embalmers are in white coats and look quite modern. In fact they reminded me of a scene of examining the corpse of an alien who fell to earth. (And indeed don’t these exotic ancients feel almost as estranged from us today as outer-space aliens?) At the end of the story there are also scenes of students in a modern-day Egyptology class learning of this period in history. A wax-like figure of Akhnaten is labeled as if in an exhibit. Glass connects this story’s relevance to the audience in so many ways. The figure seems to come to life, and remnants of his beliefs begin to reappear.
The costumes are spectacular. I especially loved the large animal headdresses and the sparkling regal robes. The juggling choreography (thanks to Sean Gandini) is thrilling, and the LA Opera Orchestra, under the helm of conductor Matthew Aucoin was perfect. It must be quite a feat to stay on top of this music which at times goes on and on with very little variation and seems to change with no indication. Yet performers and orchestra were in tune with every note as it all heightens the dramatic impact.
There were a few members of Black Lives Matter outside the opera saying that Akhnaten was black. They were protesting the casting of a white man. It made me think twice.
But once I saw the character and the requirements of his voice as they were created, and learned how rare to even find that voice, it made me realize why it was cast as it was (notwithstanding the great talent of Anthony Roth Costanzo).
LA Opera has put out a statement, “We fully agree that the historical contributions of people of color have long been distorted or ignored. We wholeheartedly support all peaceful efforts to right these wrongs… We strive for overall diversity in our casting, we have a long-standing policy of ignoring age, race and other physical characteristics when it comes to casting particular roles... the title role is particularly difficult to cast, especially in this production. Anthony Roth Costanza was one of only two singers we found to have the skills and ability to perform the role of Akhnaten.”
Photos: Craig T. Matthew / LA Opera.
Georja Umano is an actress and animal advocate.
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