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Thread: Live from the Met: Akhnaten by Philip Glass

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    Senior Member amfortas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sharkeysnight View Post
    If I remember correctly, I believe the very end of Akhnaten also quotes the opening tones of Einstein on the Beach, suggesting a cycle. I don't think they've ever been performed as such, but they do make a neat package - Satyagraha about hope and progress, Akhnaten about hope and loss, and Einstein about hope and eternity. It'd be interesting to see a company actually put on all three one after the other.
    Einstein on the Beach, all by itself, is as long as all three one after the other.
    Alan

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    I sat through all 4-plus hours (without intervals) of Einstein, the most austere of Glass's "biography" trilogy, and found it a wonderful experience. Akhenaten and Satyagraha (both of which I've also seen) are even more accessible, so people need have no fear of either.

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    I quite enjoyed this when I saw it at Los Angeles Opera three years ago. I have a ticket for tomorrow morning's relay, but I might decide I need to rest instead. What's pushing me to go is how good this was and how unlikely it is that there will be any sort of video release. I expect, as with Satyagraha, it won't even show up on Met's streaming service.

    Here's my review from when I saw it. It seems like other than than Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye (instead of Stacey Tappan), the singers I named are performing again tomorrow.

    Quote Originally Posted by mountmccabe View Post
    I saw the 11/17 performance of Akhnaten at Los Angeles Opera.[...]

    The opera itself was spectacular. Anthony Roth Costanzo continues to amaze. This isn't as narrative as many operas and most of the pieces are rather distancing, but he has a rich and compelling voice. His hymn was beautiful, and his English was clear. His voice sounded wonderful with J'Nai Bridges as Nefertiti and Stacey Tappan as Queen Tye. The duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti was acted stylistically rather than passionately, but it was wonderful to hear the focus on their voices together.

    Much of the singing in the opera is choral, or paired with choral singing. The large chorus of LA Opera were up to the task, driving the evening, singing in ancient Egyptian, ancient Hebrew, and Akkadian.

    Zachary James was a forceful Scribe/narrator. It was really interesting seeing this shortly after seeing both Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber, both also making use of a narrator in the language of the audience. There were no supertitles here, and not having text to read during the performance was liberating.

    The product[ion] is the one by Phelim McDermott recently seen at English National Opera. There is a lot of slow, ritualized movement, and a shocking amount of juggling, designed by Sean Gandini, with jugglers from Gandini juggling. Like, the story is told via the music, then the juggling, and only then non-juggling actions. For example, in Act 2 when Akhnaten clears the temple of the priests of Amon, it is a squad of jugglers that move on the old priests, the jugglers tossing juggling clubs back and forth, intimidating the priests and driving them away. This is not entirely out of nowhere; there was juggling in ancient Egypt. It was also well choreographed to the music, variations building subtly over time. And I only saw a few dropped items. But it grew a little bit old by the end of the opera.

    The stage pictures were particularly stunning, with sets by Tom Pye, lighting by Bruno Poet. The costumes, by Kevin Pollard, were elaborate, helping create distinctive characters. The pace was generally meditative, and was largely effective.

    In the first act coronation scene Akhnaten emerges from an upright sarcophagus entirely nude. He slowly walks around the stage as part of the ritual until eventually he is lifted aloft by the jugglers and lowered into a pair of pants. This is followed by his ornate royal robes. This seemed effective; there are themes of rebirth and renewal. Akhnaten seeks to cleanse Egypt, build something new. It was bold, but that is not inappropriate.

    The production's one really facile idea was presenting Akhnaten as genderqueer/trans/hermaphrodite, done to highlight his strangeness and weirdness. "Akhnaten was unlike anything Egypt had ever seen!" may be true, but this was not supported by the opera (countertenor does not mean trans), history, and it wasn't reasonable representation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by The Conte View Post
    Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. Whilst they aren't different installments of the same story like The Ring, they are all biographies of historical figures and I believe were written as a trilogy (although I haven't heard of them being performed as a series).

    N.
    There was a pre-performance interview with Philip Glass when I saw Akhnaten three years ago. Matthew Aucoin (a composer, and conductor for that performance) led the interview.

    Quote Originally Posted by mountmccabe View Post
    Glass also said the the thread through this trilogy was social change through nonviolent means. Science, politics, then religion.
    Glass said the fourth [topic for an opera] would be the press. Aucoin asked if Glass was planning such an opera and Glass laughed a little nervously, and said he was too intimidated by the idea and didn't know how he would do it.
    I don't think there was any plan to do a set when they started Einstein on the Beach, but my impression is that as the other two were written they were thought of as linked.

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    As a performer I can only imagine what Anthony Roth Costanzo must be feeling this morning. I wonder how you count Glass rhythmically? "1-2-3 2-2-3 3-2-3 4-2-3 ... 75-2-3 76-2-3 77-1-2-3-4 78 1-2-3-4 "

    Anyway. I'm pumped and simultaneously hope I don't hate it. I had an old VCR of Satyagraha about 20 years ago and couldn't get through a half an hour. But as I discussed, I think I'm getting more open-minded in my dotage ... unlike some folks here.

    Kind regards,

    George

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    The music is absolutely breathtaking and interesting. I am generally not a fan of minimalism, but I find the music of Akhnaten mesmerizing. I also like Glass's The Canyon and Symphony No. 9.
    Last edited by TurnaboutVox; Nov-24-2019 at 20:19. Reason: Quotation removal
    Follow me on Instragam: figaro_under_the_moonlight.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Barelytenor View Post
    I had an old VCR of Satyagraha about 20 years ago and couldn't get through a half an hour. B
    Now that I ponder more, I think it may have been Koyannitsqaatsi that I couldn't abide.

    More later!

    Best

    G

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    Quote Originally Posted by Barelytenor View Post
    Now that I ponder more, I think it may have been Koyannitsqaatsi that I couldn't abide.

    More later!

    Best

    G
    The film and music are pure genius, IMHO.
    Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
    Voltaire

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    Default One Man's Opinion: Akhnaten

    Where to begin? I tried my best to remain non-judgmental and merely absorb the experience, but that just so goes against my nature. After all, we all choose the art (or lack of art) that we consume every day.

    Many critics about Glass being a “brilliant composer” or that is music is “genius.” But I have never heard anyone describe him as a melodist. And certainly not as a dramatist.

    Before I went to Akhnaten yesterday, I was thinking about what singularly appeals to me in opera. It comes down to two things, melody and drama. Everyone loves a “big tune.” And as a singer, I certainly do. I also appreciate good settings of text, and knowing/learning the Italian/German/French/Russian words of that music. (I have made a lifelong study of languages as part of my serious commitment to being a good singer, even if the professional aspect has long since passed me by.)

    And I thought about another Egyptian opera, Aïda.

    Glass’ approach to Akhnaten leaves us at a distant, ceremonial remove from the characters initially, and seldom does he give us tools and reasons to actually care about the characters. The Met actually reinforced this sterile emotional distance by showing very few subtitles. A lot of the words were in (I guess) ancient Egyptian. It’s almost like looking at an Egyptian frieze. If that was his aim, he was successful.

    Akhnaten is an opera in four acts, and the first act opens with the death of Amenhotep III, father of Amenhotep IV who later changes his name to Akhnaten, “spirit of Aten,” the sun god. We have no information on these characters, and they move slowly in stylized half-time. None of their music makes us like them, or feel concern for their plight. The “words” to the music are inaccessible. The only person I actually felt sorry for was the poor juggler who dropped his balls twice, each time having to show remorse to the sun god. Or something.

    Amenhotep’s heart is removed and weighed against a feather to determine if he will pass into the afterlife. Amenhotep’s son is crowned the new pharaoh. After, he ascends the stairs to make his first statement in “The Window of Appearances.” This is one of the most popular set pieces in the opera, apparently. But like so much of the opera, it felt like a missed opportunity. He announces his dedication to “one creator, one maker of all things.” (Fortunately, there are some YouTube performances with subtitles.) The whole piece is an eight-minute arpeggio in A minor. It’s Akhnaten (powerfully acted and well-sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) singing solo at the beginning, later joined by Queen Tye, soprano, his (recently widowed) mother, and his wife Nefertiti, mezzo. All the words are in Egyptian. No subtitles from the Met. (Sigh.) The “melody” is a simple motif repeated over and over by Akhnaten, then harmonized by the two female voices.

    Glass’ music is described as “mesmerizing” and “dazzling.” Well that may be well and good, but I don’t want to be hypnotized. I want to feel passion and care about the characters. I want some good tunes! It is only in Act II where Akhnaten sings his private thoughts in English that I actually care about what happened to him. And even there, the “melody” was a simplistic motif, not at all memorable.

    Compare this with Aïda, where (accompanied by some bang-up music and intelligible lyrics) we almost immediately start to care about the characters and their passions. Glass largely eschews all that.

    Look, I know that we can’t remain stuck musically in 1850. And unlike some folks who described this (without hearing it) as “awful howling,” I recognize that it has some appeal, even for me. The music is innovative, even to the point of having no violins in the orchestra which gives it a rather low center of gravity. But it could have been so much better. There is a love duet central to Act II where Akhnaten and Nefertiti bond and swear their love. But it’s another missed opportunity. “O dolci mani” it ain’t. Instead, they sing “Ah! Ah! Ah!” about 86 times, or 142.

    This is all one man’s opinion. I enjoyed the production immensely, but all the juggling and the incomprehensible chorus shouting, all the dropping balls, sun scenery, fairly came across as an apology for the lack of musical or dramatic or vocal interest.

    Kind regards,

    George

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    Senior Member eljr's Avatar
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    Great write up.

    I find the minimalist approach most captivating but I also know I am in the minority.

    Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
    Voltaire

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    I really loved it, although I had to fight dozing off in a couple of places - a combination of sitting in the dark, irregular sleep patterns and hypnotic music. The music is pretty much as you expect from Glass, although the hymn to the sun god was a really beautiful aria.

    I mainly went because it looked aesthetically fantastic from the images I saw in the advertisements and it did not disappoint. Very interesting to hear the singers' take on that kind of composition. "Very trancelike" and worlds away from the regular repertoire (another reason to see it as when might they show something like that again?) but opera is an art form and the abstraction is not a bad thing. The criticisms I would have are that I thought the juggling a bit distracting, especially when people dropped balls on stage, and I didn't see the point in it much. Because the pace is slow, the cast also move around a lot very slowly attempting to recreate scenes from an Egyptian fresco, but I guess there is very little to give them to do in a Glass opera.

    As others have said, the lead role was beautifully performed and the female lead was also highly impressive in terms of being visually stunning for the part. I would definitely see it again if given the chance! I tried Einstein on the Beach, but didn't enjoy it so much. I might have another go at it. I would like to try Satyagraha first though.
    Last edited by crmoorhead; Nov-25-2019 at 16:19.

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    Quote Originally Posted by crmoorhead View Post
    I mainly went because it looked aesthetically fantastic from the images I saw in the advertisements and it did not disappoint.
    I think this really touches Glass's main strength -- he can write music for images. The high point of this IMO is not the collaborations with Robert Wilson, but the score for Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi. This seems to me to be a major success




    When he writes purely instrumental music I think it's less interesting, often worse than that -- pompous and solemn. In my opinion this is crap, for example

    Last edited by Mandryka; Nov-25-2019 at 16:42.

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    Art is such a individual experience.
    Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
    Voltaire

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    Quote Originally Posted by Barelytenor View Post
    Where to begin? I tried my best to remain non-judgmental and merely absorb the experience, but that just so goes against my nature. After all, we all choose the art (or lack of art) that we consume every day.

    Many critics about Glass being a “brilliant composer” or that is music is “genius.” But I have never heard anyone describe him as a melodist. And certainly not as a dramatist.

    Before I went to Akhnaten yesterday, I was thinking about what singularly appeals to me in opera. It comes down to two things, melody and drama. Everyone loves a “big tune.” And as a singer, I certainly do. I also appreciate good settings of text, and knowing/learning the Italian/German/French/Russian words of that music. (I have made a lifelong study of languages as part of my serious commitment to being a good singer, even if the professional aspect has long since passed me by.)

    And I thought about another Egyptian opera, Aïda.

    Glass’ approach to Akhnaten leaves us at a distant, ceremonial remove from the characters initially, and seldom does he give us tools and reasons to actually care about the characters. The Met actually reinforced this sterile emotional distance by showing very few subtitles. A lot of the words were in (I guess) ancient Egyptian. It’s almost like looking at an Egyptian frieze. If that was his aim, he was successful.

    Akhnaten is an opera in four acts, and the first act opens with the death of Amenhotep III, father of Amenhotep IV who later changes his name to Akhnaten, “spirit of Aten,” the sun god. We have no information on these characters, and they move slowly in stylized half-time. None of their music makes us like them, or feel concern for their plight. The “words” to the music are inaccessible. The only person I actually felt sorry for was the poor juggler who dropped his balls twice, each time having to show remorse to the sun god. Or something.

    Amenhotep’s heart is removed and weighed against a feather to determine if he will pass into the afterlife. Amenhotep’s son is crowned the new pharaoh. After, he ascends the stairs to make his first statement in “The Window of Appearances.” This is one of the most popular set pieces in the opera, apparently. But like so much of the opera, it felt like a missed opportunity. He announces his dedication to “one creator, one maker of all things.” (Fortunately, there are some YouTube performances with subtitles.) The whole piece is an eight-minute arpeggio in A minor. It’s Akhnaten (powerfully acted and well-sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) singing solo at the beginning, later joined by Queen Tye, soprano, his (recently widowed) mother, and his wife Nefertiti, mezzo. All the words are in Egyptian. No subtitles from the Met. (Sigh.) The “melody” is a simple motif repeated over and over by Akhnaten, then harmonized by the two female voices.

    Glass’ music is described as “mesmerizing” and “dazzling.” Well that may be well and good, but I don’t want to be hypnotized. I want to feel passion and care about the characters. I want some good tunes! It is only in Act II where Akhnaten sings his private thoughts in English that I actually care about what happened to him. And even there, the “melody” was a simplistic motif, not at all memorable.

    Compare this with Aïda, where (accompanied by some bang-up music and intelligible lyrics) we almost immediately start to care about the characters and their passions. Glass largely eschews all that.

    Look, I know that we can’t remain stuck musically in 1850. And unlike some folks who described this (without hearing it) as “awful howling,” I recognize that it has some appeal, even for me. The music is innovative, even to the point of having no violins in the orchestra which gives it a rather low center of gravity. But it could have been so much better. There is a love duet central to Act II where Akhnaten and Nefertiti bond and swear their love. But it’s another missed opportunity. “O dolci mani” it ain’t. Instead, they sing “Ah! Ah! Ah!” about 86 times, or 142.

    This is all one man’s opinion. I enjoyed the production immensely, but all the juggling and the incomprehensible chorus shouting, all the dropping balls, sun scenery, fairly came across as an apology for the lack of musical or dramatic or vocal interest.

    Kind regards,

    George
    Very much what I thought of Satyagraha. The music is very beautiful, but not operatic to my taste and after five minutes I have got the point and don't need any more of it.

    I much prefer Thomas Ades or other composers whose operas are more dramatically engaging. (I also like some plotless operas by Nono and Berio that I have seen, but that have complex texts that make them more interesting. (The texts are meant to be followed rather than just part of the aural atmosphere of the work.)

    N.

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