Review of Philip Glass's opera "Akhnaten"

Submitted to the Egyptologists' Electronic Forum (EEF).

Boston Lyric Opera (BLO)
Season 1999-2000 "Voices of the Nile":
* Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" Jan 10 - Nov 21, 2000
* Philip Glass's "Akhnaten" Jan 26 - Feb 6, 2000
* Mozart's "Die Zauberflote" March 29 - April 9, 2000
place: Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St, Boston, MA 02116, Near Stuart Street, (617) 482-9393
info: Boston Opera at (617) 542-6772, and website.

The original recording mentioned below:
Philipp Glass, Akhnaten: CBS Records Masterworks M2K 42457 (2 CDs; $29.67)


I have listened to the Columbia recording probably 30 times a year for the past 13 years, all the time hoping that one day I'd have the opportunity to see it performed. So, on one hand there was no way the performance could live up to my expectations, but on another there is no way I could have been disappointed. Here's my subjective analysis of the performance of 06 Feb 2000!

I can be a harsh critic, especially where Egyptological themes are involved. So often, even the bare minimum of research appears to be lacking. My particular pet peeve is poor hieroglyphs: how hard is it to find a picture and copy something? But I understand that artistic license must be allowed some room, in order to make a work entertaining and accessible. In particular, I learned long ago to ignore costuming decisions, though I would dearly love -- just once! -- to see someone create truly faithful Pharaonic costuming. The BLO production chose costumes in that pseudo-Arabian mode that is for some reason so common, throwing in a dash of pseudo-African which was refreshing. They were quite nice, really; just not in the Pharaonic style! One possible exception was Akhnaten's bathing costume, a long white skirt with a single shoulder strap crossing the body. I cannot lay my hands on an example of this from a relief or painting, but it did strike me as somewhat authentic, and the heavily pleated skirt at least was classical Eighteenth dynasty.
The sets were simple (as they ought to be) and quite effective, if not perfectly authentic. Painted translucent curtains depicted a typical Amarna relief and a typical Amarna-house nature scene.

As far as real nit-picks, I have a few that must be mentioned, but which in no way ruined my enjoyment.
In the playbill, the High Priest is listed as "Amon, High Priest" when it should be "Amon High Priest" (no comma).
During the funeral scene, a pyramid was lowered from above, apparently as some sort of tomb symbolism. I winced, but I suppose that as pure symbolism, a pyramid is better than a mastaba or a hole in a cliff, since it is obvious what it is.
There were a few instances of instruments out-of-tune, primarily clarinet and oboe. Glass's music is particularly unforgiving to the subtlest out of tune or out of time, and any live performance is susceptible to them. I know the musicians were doing their best with music that is deceptively simple, and the instances were few. Had there been numerous lapses, it would have been inexcusable.
Some voices could have been louder, at least to the balcony. The low range of Ay's bass during The Coronation was inaudible, and Akhnaten himself (Geoffrey Scott in his professional operatic debut) was lost among the stronger women's voices in The Window of Appearances, which should be his showpiece (as it is the first time we hear that striking counter-tenor). Furthermore, he ran out of breath early and broke "wenenet" into "we - nen - et", when, of course, it should have been "wen - en - et". In fact Akhnaten's voice sounded a bit weak throughout the first half of the performance. He found more strength in the second half, but, for me, never came close to the power of Paul Esswood's singing on the CBS recording.

There were a few subtle Egyptian touches that worked.
A depiction of the weighing of the heart was included in The Funeral of Amenhotep III, a nice touch, if (again) not particularly authentic. A woman resembling Justice (without the blindfold) held two pans, and the heart and the feather were placed in them. She then took some time tottering between the two before finding the feather much, much heavier.
There were also two instances -- one in The City/Dance, and one in The Coronation of Akhnaten, I believe -- where offerings were shown being brought and (this I really liked) being recorded by the scribe. In The City/Dance, the offerings were invisible, left for us to imagine, while in The Coronation they were actual things like a bunch of grapes or a bouquet of flowers.
Also in The Coronation, the coronation itself is performed twice, the second time with all participants standing in positions as if a mirror image of the first time. This may have been done to fill time with something visually interesting, but to me it also conveyed the inescapable Ancient Egyptian quality of duality.
A particularly good production moment occurred at the beginning of The Coronation of Akhnaten, as a reflective Akhnaten, still dressed in the long black robes and veil of the funeral, wandered around the stage as his attendants rushed to place cushions before him to tread on. Occasionally, he paused pensively while the attendants waited alertly for his next movement. It was humorous and heartbreaking at the same time, and was absolutely perfectly acted. Whatever criticisms I might have about Geoffrey Scott's voice, I found his acting of this complex role exemplary. These red cushions were a recurrent theme throughout the production, serving to introduce Akhnaten just before he entered a scene, as well as symbolizing his royal nature and suggesting a lack of groundedness. During the passionate singing of the Hymn (Mr Scott's best singing of the evening), Akhnaten, not without trepidation but with a clear sense of purpose, steps off the cushion onto the ground the Aten had made.

The production itself was filled with light symbolism, most obvious during The Temple. The scene opens dark, lit in red to emphasize the artificiality of the light. As Akhnaten and Tiye sing their wordless song, spots of light begin to appear around the stage as the roof is symbolically torn off, and priests stagger about squinting. In Attack and Fall, the chorus sings with flashlights held under their chins, then pointed accusingly at Akhenaten. There were other examples, as well.

The house appeared to be sold out, or nearly so, and I am pleased to report that very few were lost during the single intermission (between Act II, Scene ii and Act II, Scene iii). It was fun listening to comments around us. It seemed that it was either loved or hated -- no indifference was noted -- and seemed to be mostly the former, which took me a bit by surprise. Akhnaten is not like most traditional operas, with their linear storytelling and (relatively) mundane plots. There is a story, but it is told through vignettes, each of which may be only scantly described. I would expect the average opera fan -- a stereotype, and I hope I am wrong -- to find it too far out there. The average music fan, however, could not fail to be drawn in by the compelling, evocative music.

The playbill includes a good introduction to the material, mostly culled from the liner notes of the CBS recording. There is also an excellent essay by the stage director, Mary Zimmerman, which shows that she did her research (including making a trip to Egypt, an absolutely essential step that I am nonetheless pleased was done).

There will be a radio broadcast on WGBH-radio (89.7FM) on 25 March 2000 on Morning Pro Musica.

Nancy R. Tomasheski

[moderator's note]

In EEF thread (10) of March '99, Michael Tilgner mentions the following links for this opera: general info plus the complete libretto, and a book with a musicological analysis of this opera: John Richardson, "Singing Archeology. Philip Glass's Akhnaten", Wesleyan University Press, Hanover, NH, 1999 (pbk., $19.95). In the same thread, Dimitri Meeks mentions that an Egyptologist, Paul John Frandsen, wrote an article on "Philip Glass's Akhenaten", published in The Musical Quarterly 77 no 2 (1993), pp. 241-267.

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