We are not totally starved for Philip Glass in Southern California. It’s easy to think of memorable Glassian events, like L.A. Opera’s own Dracula at the Ace last year, the phenomenal marathon of Music in 12 Parts at Royce a few years ago, and Einstein on the Beach a bit before that.
I wish the powers that be would note how full the seats are with younger people when Glass is performed. (And I also wish during the year that every other musical city in the world is hosting a festival to celebrate Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, L.A. would get with the program. But to return to Glass …)
We’re even in pretty good shape regarding his 1983 opera Akhnaten. There was a memorable performance of Selected Scenes in 2006 at Disney Hall, with countertenor Daniel Bubeck, attractive and unnerving in just the right measure. And in 2011 Long Beach Opera mounted a terrific production at the Terrace Theater. With the catch that LBO, as always, was operating on more enthusiasm than cash.
The new L.A. Opera/English National Opera co-production is definitely not done on a shoestring. It addressed the big challenge of the piece—the fact that nothing happens—with lavish visual spectacle. But it wasn’t empty spectacle, or gratuitous. Conductor Atthew Aucoin, Director Phelim McDermott, Set Designer Tom Pye and Costume designer Kevin Pollard took Glass’s eerie drama to heart, and created a moving dramatic spectacle. It was a perfect realization.
The first act was a triumph. It conveyed the weight of tradition and ritual that sets the drama in motion. It also conveyed how a Person is transformed—or replaced—by a Pharaoh. Anthony Roth Costanzo came out on stage naked, and was dressed by the Jugglers, doing nothing himself. It was mesmerizing and made the point.
The non-singing Jugglers were part of almost every scene. The juggling was artful and anxiety-provoking in a way that was completely appropriate. The looping and interlinked repetitive patterns also mirrored the music.
Among the many details that demonstrated the production's serious engagement with the work, was that they chose not to provide supertitle translation of the libretto: they realized that Akhnaten is a pageant, and the significance of the words is more symbolic than dramatic.
When listening to the recording, I always skip the parts with the narration, but Zachary James’s immense voice made The Scribe’s words compelling.
The only drawbacks were the limitiations of the work itself. It's really a cantata more than an opera, consisting of declamation and tableaux rather than action. For example, Akhnaten’s big solo, the hymn that ends Act Two, is extraordinary, but it decisively stops whatever dramatic momentum dead. L.A. Opera did it with extreme gravity, ... and I started to nod off.
And then there's the “Attack and Fall” scene in Act Three. This is the big test of a production of Akhnaten. How do you stage a violent revolution with music that’s refuses to acknowledge abrupt change? L.A. Opera did a good job, presenting tableaux of the coup d’etat. If the Chorus and all the Daughters had been up to the task, it would have been a triumph.
So what if it wasn't perfect? It was magnificent. The longeurs are just part of the ride, like the boring bits in Tristan. It’s worth it.