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Opera Review (Long Beach): Akhnaten by Philip Glass at the Terrace Theatre

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The first time I saw Akhnaten was in New York at the New York State Opera, and this was in the ’70s. I was so impressed by the story of this unique Egyptian ruler that when I was in Egypt I bought a stone relief of this strange and wonderful king.

You see, he invented monotheism when he threw out the old gods of Egypt and replaced them with just one, Aten or the Sun god. He moved the capital and built a new city, Akhetaten, which was a city of worship and the arts. He departed from the polygamist norm and had just one wife, the beautiful Nefertiti, and five daughters. He also had a son, Tutankhamun.

Eventually, the new religion didn’t take hold, thanks to the out-of-work priests; his city was destroyed, and all references to him were obliterated from their history. It was only after the “lost city” was rediscovered, the tomb of Tutankhamun was opened, and scholars began to pull together some fragments of history, that the story of this remarkable king was reexamined and his accomplishments acknowledged.

The modern composer Philip Glass, known as a minimalist although he prefers to be called a composer of “music with a repetitive structure,” also found this ruler of interest. Glass composed what he called his “Portrait Trilogy,” Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, about the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, and finally Akhnaten. He thinks of these men as persons who greatly altered history. It was a natural match in that Glass himself has been such an important composer of modern music.

In each of these operas Glass further explores harmony, and in Akhnaten, he expanded the “triad of harmonic language.” The opera is sung in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, and Ancient Egyptian. There is also narration and an aria sung in whatever language is prominent in the country where it is being performed. The theatre where it was first performed had a small orchestra pit so Glass eliminated the violins, which accounts for the low, dark sound of the piece.

The performance of this opera places great demands on the musicians and singers because of its repetitive nature, and for the singers, it adds the chore of learning these ancient texts. Because Akhnaten was portrayed as having a long face, weird belly, and breasts, he was thought to have had some disease, so to differentiate him in the opera, Glass made him a countertenor.

Long Beach Opera, known for its adventuresome nature in trying to produce lesser-known opera, and in trying to expand the horizons of production, was a perfect choice to perform this opera in Southern California. Placido Domingo’s LA Opera would have never attempted it.

Maestro Andreas Mitisek, who also directs and acted as the set designer, has put together an amazing production. Not only does he have some wonderful voices in the soloists and the chorus, he has creative lighting designers in Freider Weiss, who was in charge of interactive video, and Dan Weingarten. The two have created a magical display of lights using the minimal set, the cyclorama, and the bodies of the cast as the screen. He has also utilized a dance company run by Nanette Brodie, who recreates poses and movement of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Nefertiti is sung by Peabody Southwell and Akhnaten’s mother by Oxana Senina. Both these ladies have beautiful and expressive voices. Akhnaten is sung by the famous German-speaking countertenor, Jochen Kowaiski. Despite some minor pitch problems, he sang admirably. Akhnaten had its final performance on March 27th at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach.

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About Robert Machray

  • GlassFan

    I disagree with Mr. Machray’s characterization of Kowalski’s pitch issues as “minor”. While I was delighted to see the production on Saturday evening, Jochen’s performance was its most glaring flaw. He was shockingly incapable of singing the part and fell far flat of his intended notes.