Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Knock Out Akhnaten from Indiana University

I was thrilled to be able to watch Philip Glass' opera Akhnaten, live last night on a feed from Indiana University. As is often the case, the production . . . and the performance, belied the moniker attached to it "student performance." It felt, in every way as good (or better) than one can see in a majority of professional opera houses.

Along with Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach, this is one of Glass' three early "bio" operas. While my personal favorite has always been Satyagraha (for a number of reasons, mostly I'm more drawn to Gandhi and his principles than Akhnaten and his), the Indiana production makes as strong a case for this opera as can be made. The sets worked ingeniously, the staging shifting from Cairo of today, back to ancient Egypt, then back to now for a final look (as the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye look on as if dreaming).

Following a prologue (of sorts) the opera springs to life with the funeral of Akhnaten's father, Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Glass gives the men's chorus some remarkable, beautiful music and an opportunity for Aye (Nefertiti's father) to shine. I can't imagine this role being sung better than it was last night by Jason Eck, who was quite simply, marvelous. The elaborate ritual/pageant that ensued is precisely the type of thing that is wedded to Glass' music to perfection. Conductor Arthur Fagan looked like a Glass specialist, the score of Akhnated never faltering, and the timing of both orchestra and chorus was impeccable from start to finish, (even those tricky Glassian rhythm changes that can play havoc with the mind).

Nicholas Tamagna, presented a noble, touching, complex (at times almost boyish) Akhnaten, his countertenor soaring easily over Glass's complex arpeggiated ostinatos. A uniquely beautiful blending of voices was achieved as, during the "love duet," Tamagna and his Nefertiti Sarah Ballman, both in nearly translucent white robes, intertwined their bodies perfectly mirroring the music they were singing, and a part of. It was a stunning effect and a the intimacy playing up a nice contrast from the formalities preceding it.

Akhnaten's declaration that only the sun god, Aten, shall now be worshiped, made for great drama, the people horrified as he smashes one of the representations of their gods. This was stunningly capped as the temple opens and Aten - an enormous golden sun with outstretched arms and hands, descends. Breathtakingly beautiful.

I'd never before thought of it, but last night it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. The final scenes of Akhnaten could well have served as some sort of inspiration for Herman Wernicke's staging of "Giulio Cesare" for the Liceu, which also begins - and ends - with the ruins of an ancient civilization (Wernicke using the Rosetta Stone as his stage). The effect is thought provoking and a sobering reality of how history plays out, is played with, remembered and forgotten.

The production, directed by Candace Evans with Douglas Fitch's designs and Linda Pisano's costumes, would be the envy of any opera house . . . it would be nice if other companies could borrow the production. It'd be even nicer if its success resulted in a commercially produced DVD.