Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” yet another exciting success for Long Beach Opera


"Akhnaten," an opera by PHILIP GLASS at Long Beach Opera.

Libretto (Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew, and language of the audience) by the composer in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel and Richard Riddell. Vocal text drawn from original sources by Shalom Goldman.

Posted Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review by David Gregson.

Time suspended or time moving inexorably forward? Perhaps both. This is the music of Philip Glass, and when it propels and/or distills an ancient historical pageant, like that of the life of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, one feels something very singular and remarkable happening. An oxymoron of sorts: history frozen and history irresistibly flowing beyond anything yet imagined.

Glass presents us with an operatic experience unlike any other – although perhaps Wagner requires the same amount of willing submission to the composer’s terms. With Wagner, you know you are in for a long sit and you must simply accept that fact – or you’ll never ever understand what the composer is trying to do. You’ll stick with Mozart or Verdi.

Although Glass has innumerable fans that know his large works from LPs and CDs, simply listening to a Glass opera on recordings is insufficient. His work has always called out for a visual component – one reason why he is among the most successful and interesting of contemporary film composers.

And almost everything came together perfectly for Glass at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach Saturday for the first of two LBO presentations of his three-act opera, “Akhnaten,” a kind of oratorio/dance and multimedia piece which actually defies categorization, in fact, as an “opera” at all.

Quite beyond the large, excellent cast of singers and dancers (not all of them listed here, I regret to say, although I have provided some hyperlinks to the LBO website), we enjoyed the superlative creative leadership of Andrea Mitisek, whom, it seems, is increasingly impossible to over praise. He is conductor, production designer and stage director, and it would be difficult to claim he handled one department less well than another.

Although I am certain they were not simple at all, the stage design elements seemed to consist of various sorts of platforms and solid shapes that could be moved into fascinating configurations. What seems most fresh. however, was the astonishing work of the lighting designer, Dan Weingarten, and interactive video designer, Frieder Weiss. According to his brief program bio, Weiss is the “author of EyeCon and Kalypso, video motion sensing programs especially designed for use with dance, music and computer art.”

Thanks chiefly to Weiss, the stage became a virtual cosmos in which every atom, planet and star moved in sympathy with the performers. The effects were astonishing. I have seen several similar things in the past – most recently the Robert Lepage “The Damnation of Faust” at the Met – but nothing quite this impressive and varied. Notable, too, was the effective but limited color palette.

The nature of this piece – a huge, coordinated ensemble engaging the senses on so many levels — rather inhibits my ability to comment sufficiently on the specific contributions of many of the performers. The Akhnaten, Jochen Kowalski, a countertenor whose reputation for excellence is enormous, seemed to be singing below pitch much of the time. The less-than-superb acoustics of the hall accentuated this problem where I was sitting. I could detect no such problem with his wife, Nefertiti, sung superbly by Peabody Southwell. Kowalski’s pitch did, of course, affect their duets together.

I found the rest of the chief singers (listed below) to be excellent. Because this is a formalist pageant-like opera (a series of tableaus, one might safely say), critical comments on acting are almost irrelevant.

The choreographic aspects, often reminiscent of the sorts of figurations seen on Egyptian monuments, were superbly executed by Nanette Brodie and the Nannette Brodie Dance Theater. The multi-talented (she sings, she writes, she translates, she directs – and what else?) Suzan Hanson was assistant stage director, and Kelly Ray the assistant choreographer. The very busy and skilled chorus master/assistant conductor was Benjamin Makino. Bob Christian was sound designer and Casey Kimble the assistant lighting designer.

As I have said so often – another triumph for Long Beach Opera people. They help make life in this part of the world so interesting!

——

Monday, March 21: Late note: I am told the LBO used the "complete Glass orchestra." This should be of interest to those who thought it was not — or that it had been altered in some way. I thought the playing was largely excellent; what problems the musicians may have had here and there are totally understandable under the time and budgetary constraints faced by LBO. This was a large, challenging and thoroughly commendable presentation of a very special opera we would never have had an opportunity to hear and see otherwise. The next (and last) performance is at 2 p.m., March 27.

Libretto of the opera

Performances:

Sat. March 19, 2011 – 7:30pm

Sun. March 27, 2011 – 2pm

Terrace Theater, Long Beach

Duration: 2 hrs 45 min, 1 intermission

Cast and Artistic Team:

Akhnaten: Jochen Kowalski, countertenor

Nefertiti, Wife of Akhnaten: Peabody Southwell, mezzo soprano

Queen Tye, Mother of Akhnaten: Oxana Senina, soprano

Horemhab, General and future Pharaoh: Roberto Perlas Gomez, baritone

Aye, Father of Nefertiti & advisor to the Pharaoh: Ralph Cato, baritone

Amon, High Priest: Tyler Thompson, tenor

Six Daughters: Linda Alexander, Judy Hur, Maria Christina Navarro, Yun Jeong Choi, Kristina Engel, Nandani Sinha

Conductor – Stage Director – Production Design: Andreas Mitisek

Video Designer: Frieder Weiss, "an expert for real-time computing and interactive computer systems in performance art. He is the author of EyeCon and Kalypso, video motion sensing programs especially designed for use with dance, music and computer art."

Lighting Designer: Dan Weingarten

Choreography: Nanette Brodie

Chorus Master / Assistant Conductor: Ben Makino

Nanette Brodie Dance Theatre

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