Philip Glass' "Akhnaten" is the un-"Aida."
Verdi and Glass both re-imagined an ancient Egypt suited to the composers' own times. But whereas Verdi relies on the great 19th century Italian opera themes of forbidden love and the like to make the exotic realm of Pharaohs and gods knowable, Glass operates on the late 20th century perspective of history as unknowable.
We witness from afar archaeology's murky record: a radical, megalomaniacal Pharaoh depicted with an elongated head, protuberant breasts and swollen stomach, who overthrew Egyptian religion and tradition, proposing monotheism as a monument to himself and building a new capital as another monument to himself.
The historical Pharaoh invites speculation. Glass' opera cooperates by presenting the Pharaoh as a tragic, spiritual visionary. Los Angeles Opera's eye-popping new production, which opened Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, cooperates with its own exuberant speculation, along with some awfully good circus juggling.
First of all, the mere act of programming "Akhnaten" in America is significant. Glass' third opera (of some 25 so far) and the last in his trilogy of "Portrait" operas (begun with "Einstein on the Beach" and followed by "Satyagraha," about Gandhi) has suffered a curious neglect in the U.S. The 1984 premiere at Stuttgart Opera in a visually memorable production by Achim Freyer led to an excellent recording (still the only one). But the first production to reach the U.S., at Houston Opera and New York City Opera that same year, was unimaginative. The score was a major musical and theatrical step for Glass toward adapting Minimalism for opera conventions, but he was still thought too avant-garde for American companies.
"Akhnaten" wasn't rediscovered until John Adams, like a musical archaeologist unearthing ancient Egyptian relics, conducted excerpts from the score as the climax to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first Minimalist Jukebox festival a decade ago. Five years later, Long Beach Opera mounted a tantalizing but uneven production.
Now, thanks to L.A. Opera, we have the first major American "Akhnaten" in more than quarter-century. This co-production with English National Opera, where it was given in the spring, happens to be a mixed success, but not so mixed as to lend doubt that an important American opera is finally here to stay.
That is not to say that "Akhnaten" isn't a weird opera or that Phelim McDermott isn't a wacky director. One of the founders of Improbable, the off-key British theater company, he and Improbable designer Julian Crouch were responsible for an earlier, exceptional English National Opera production of "Satyagraha" that went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
McDermott treats "Akhnaten" as a quirky ritual, which it somewhat is. The libretto is a collaboration of historical documents read by a narrator, the Scribe, and sung texts in biblical Hebrew and Babylonian Akkadian taken from such sources as the "Egyptian Book of the Dead" and Akhnaten's own writings.
The three acts are scenes from ancient Egypt. First, the funeral of Akhnaten's father, Amenhotep III, the coronation of the new Pharaoh, the destruction of the old pantheistic temples and their replacement with the worship of a single sun god. Then a ceremonial dance conveys the building of a new capital. In Act 3, we see the family life of Akhnaten, his queen, Nefertiti, and their six daughters.
Akhnaten's reign lasted only 17 years. His extreme social, artistic and theological innovations were a shock to society. We don't know how he died, but we do know that Egypt immediately abandoned the new capital, Amarna. In the opera, Akhnaten is overthrown. The piece ends in the present, with students attending a lecture on the famous ruins, the ghosts of Akhnaten, his mother and wife looking, and singing, on.
McDermott treats all of this as mysterious antiquated ritual, perverse Victorian rite and lusty variety show. There are no surtitles. Zachary James reads the Scribe's narration with histrionic pomp and circumstance. The audience isn't expected to know what's what (although advance preparation on the L.A. Opera and English National Opera websites is a good idea).
Visually, the production is an exultant mess. We first see Akhnaten nude (full frontal alert), turned upside down by his handlers and dropped into stylized jodhpurs. As Pharaoh, he's garbed in a fanciful Egyptian hoop skirt and later takes on some of the female anatomical characteristics of his portraits. We see other characters in Kevin Pollard's crazy costumes: Goths from the 13th century BC, the 19th century, the early 20th century and a Google Maps-inspired future meet-up at Halloween. Tom Pye's set, lighted by Bruno Poet, glows gorgeously.
Apparently, juggling goes back to the Egypt of 4,000 years ago, so the dancers juggle balls and pins and balloons, and pencils and paper. They are wonderful to watch, but bouncing balls to bouncing Minimalist patterns eventually becomes superfluous, better suited for Cirque du Soleil. In contrast, the singers are asked to move like snails, their deliberate, ritualized walks hint, as has become a convention for "Akhnaten," at Robert Wilson.
The production works when the music works. The score's most distinguishing feature is that Akhnaten is a role for countertenor. The art of the male soprano has changed much over the 32-year life of the opera. No longer an androgynous curiosity, the countertenor is a regular part of opera life. A singer such as Anthony Roth Costanzo, strong of voice and feisty onstage, is entirely believable, whether undressed or in his Pharaonic hoop skirt. But he is most alluring in a gossamer gown, standing still under a luscious red orb, bringing stunning stillness to a hymn to the sun.
J'Nai Bridges, a rising star, is an opulent Nefertiti. L.A. Opera regulars Stacey Tappan (Queen Tye, Akhnaten's mother), Kihun Yoon (Horemhab, Akknaten's deceitful general), Patrick Blackwell (Aye, Nefertiti's father) and Frederick Ballentine (Amon, a high priest) are satisfying. The chorus, trained by Grant Gershon, is very fine.
But the orchestra sounded at sea throughout much of the opera. This may not have been the right opera for the company's inexperienced new artist-in-residence, Matthew Aucoin, a former Dudamel Fellow with the L.A. Phil, to make his conducting debut. He throws himself into shifting Glassian meters enthusiastically, but an appropriately gripping dark sound from an orchestra with no violins and prominent percussion is swallowed up by the problematic Dorothy Chandler Pavilion acoustic. With luck, a sense of commitment coming out of the pit will grow over the run.
Oh, yes, protesters were in front of the theater displaying signs stating that black history matters and objecting that by not hiring a countertenor of color for the title role, L.A. Opera was misrepresenting history. Not that history matters in opera, but if we are to have black countertenors for this role, they need reason to learn it, and that means "Akhnaten," like "Aida," must first enter the repertory. Let this production, then, be a step to that end, as well as in the company's continued efforts to break American opera's Glass ceiling.
Los Angeles Opera's 'Akhnaten'
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17 and 19; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 27
Information: (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.org
Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes