Met HD Akhnaten

Yesterday I watched Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten as presented in the Metropolitan Opera’s High Definition broadcast on a big screen in Scarborough, at the same time people were watching it in many places around the world.

I wish the Canadian Opera Company would undertake one of Glass’s operas, thinking especially of Akhnaten or Satyagraha. The works are written in many ways as a big blank slate inviting a director to interpret, to make something to fill broad swaths of music where the action is described in the most abstract terms.

So for example in Phelim McDermott’s conception of Akhnaten the ball shape of the sun that is worshipped by Akhnaten (who is for a time leading a monotheistic culture that goes against the previous religion & culture) gets replicated onstage by jugglers tossing balls or later carrying larger balls. His design concept working with set designer Tom Pye is blessedly simple, often a powerful stage picture.


Set by Tom Pye, costume design by Kevin Pollard (Photo: Jane Hobson)

The action could just as easily be shown through dance or puppetry or projections, and one is free to employ as few or as many persons, moving as quickly as the sometimes frenetic music or more slowly.

The curious thing about Akhnaten and Satyagraha is that one can easily mistake the themes of one for those of the other.

  • Akhnaten shows us religion as a subject of political struggle and war
  • Satyagraha shows us political struggle against the backdrop of belief
  • Akhnaten seems to concern religion
  • Satyagraha seems to concern politics
  • But Akhnaten is very much about de facto existence, a series of historically existing texts including a prayer & a series of rituals of burial, coronation & marriage
  • But Satyagraha is very much about spirituality, a series of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, as though to illustrate the activities of Gandhi’s life through his religious subtext

I have found Satyagraha very powerful in every version I’ve seen as a spiritual document. I’ve found the two versions of Akhnaten that I’ve seen to be less about spirituality and much more about the predicament of a soul incarnated in a sometimes challenging world.

These two operas would make wonderful opportunities for the COC for the following reasons:

  • They showcase the orchestra & chorus (two strengths of the COC)
  • They don’t require star power to be sold, indeed the composer alone would help sell them. It might be possible to cast either show entirely from the members of the Ensemble Studio, although Akhnaten is played by that rare bird, the counter-tenor. But there are Canadian counter-tenors.
  •  They are visual treats, depending on what director were hired, but it’s a natural for someone like Robert Lepage, François Girard, la Fura dels Baus or indeed any director the COC has employed in the past.

There is interpretive room on the musical side too. Conductor Karen Kamensek made a number of fascinating departures from what we hear on the original CBS recording conducted by Dennis Russell Davies from 1990. Where the original often snarls, maximizing the brass & percussion, Kamensek’s reading goes for something far softer. Her choices likely make things easier for the singers & especially the players expected to still have lips at the end of the 2 + hours of playing. The chorus too have a totally different sound that I’d credit to both Kamensek & Donald Palumbo, the Met chorus master. It’s most divergent in a section that I’d happily identify as my favorite passage not only in Akhnaten but in all of Philip Glass, the funeral music of Amenhotep III.

Where the 1990 version is sung and maximized in volume, Kamensek & Palumbo make the chorus sound almost like rappers, as they pump out their consonants with little sustained sound on the vowels: making for a remarkably percussive effect matching the aggressive percussion in the orchestra. It’s wonderful to see the artists take advantage of the opportunity to interpret something original & new.

It was especially enjoyable after the recent Robert Wilson Turandot to see the Met chorus sometimes juggling or carrying balls alongside the troupe of jugglers.

It’s interesting after the Euridice story that I saw Friday with its preoccupation with the afterlife and with frustrations, that this too is a story concerned with the afterlife & with frustrations, both in the abrupt ending to Akhnaten’s monotheistic experiment in revolution & warfare (Act III scene ii) and in the final scene when the protagonists’ souls discover to their dismay (in the 20th century!) that OMG they’re dead.  I wish I could chat someday with Glass (who identifies himself as a Buddhist) about how he reconciles a work such as this one or Satyagraha with his own beliefs.

There are encore presentations scheduled for Saturday February 15, Monday Feb 17 & Sunday Feb 23rd . The live performances continue until Dec 7th at Lincoln Center in N.Y.

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