Peter Jabobi (HT) Review: Akhnaten

akhnaten-1Opera review: IU opera production a major undertaking auspiciously accomplished

By Peter JacobiH-T Reviewer |
February 25, 2013

“It’s not ‘Aida,’” an acquaintance said to me, chuckling, in the lobby at intermission. I can’t remember whether our brief meeting was on Friday or Saturday evening.

“Well, no,” I responded and chuckled back. “It’s ‘Akhnaten.’ It’s Philip Glass, not Verdi, and let each opera be Egyptian in its own way. Both can enrich us.”

My acquaintance nodded in seeming agreement, and we headed back to our seats for Act 2 of what for us and for most gathered in the Musical Arts Center was an operatic adventure. I, for one, had only heard the music on CDs.Seeing and hearing “Akhnaten” live was quite a different experience than just a casual listen.

Indeed, immersion was the key to that experience. And considering the quality lavished on the Indiana University Opera Theater’s first-ever and current production of the Glass bio-drama, “enriched” is an appropriate word for me to have used.

Attendees this past weekend, and attendees this coming weekend, can and will argue about the opera itself, expressed musically in a continuing flood of so-called minimalism. Infinite colors are discernible on close listening, but on the surface, the changes come slowly and in very subtle fashion, as the chosen rhythm of a moment drags along for minutes on end before giving way to the next, similarly treated.

Taken just as score, that can become numbing. Taken as part of a dramatic whole, it becomes tantalizingly hypnotic and, as accomplished in the dazzling details of what happens on the MAC stage, a show of escalating power.

The figure at the center, of course, fascinates: a pharaoh who decrees change by ordering his people and those in religious power to forget all those false deities, to believe in one, Aten, the Sun God. We don’t know an awful lot about the biography of Akhnaten and what sort of death was his to endure. But he was young when his 17-year reign ended. The art and culture he favored flourished but briefly. The city he had laborers build was destroyed. Monotheism gave way again to a faith in multiple gods. Change did not stick.

Glass addresses the struggle between tradition and change, lifts it out of ancient history, and asks us to ponder how a clash from distant times is echoed in our day. The Opera Theater production builds on that theme. Photographic projections at start and finish take us to the Egypt of now, to Cairo and Tahrir Square, when and where the country’s citizens demanded governmental and societal change, a process, sometimes bloody, not yet resolved. The final words one sees on scrim are these: “An ideal civilization is still a dream.”

Guest stage director Candace Evans masterminded the approach: moving from the parlous present to the ruler who so long ago failed to recognize growing, then seething discontent, and — finally — back to a present with an undetermined future. It works brilliantly. She has choreographed the action, most every movement, in support of mystery and anxiety. The tension builds, in potent extension of the music.

The music is realized stunningly, thanks to conductor Arthur Fagen, chorus master Walter Huff, the two casts, a multitude of choristers, and the Concert Orchestra in the pit. For the orchestra to have labored so successfully through two hours of highly structured and repetitively patterned, potentially mesmerizing developments speaks to their individual abilities and discipline and to Maestro Fagen’s profound mastery of members and material. The chorus, Walter Huff trained, sang sumptuously.

Glass awarded the role of Akhnaten to countertenors. This production features two who fully sing and act the part. On Friday, Brennan Hall, a Performance Diploma candidate who has focused on Early Music, used stature, physical grace, and a voice of sheen to shape an enigmatically commanding figure. Saturday’s Akhnaten, an experienced guest, Nicholas Tamagna, added a sinister dimension to the pharaoh’s personality. Both proved magnetic.

Mezzos Laura Thoreson and Sarah Ballman turned into supportive Nefertitis, the pharaoh’s wife who gets to sing a most seductive duet with him (and seductive those duets were). Sopranos Shannon Love and Olivia Savage, as Akhnaten’s mother, managed to warble the required, stretched-out runs of high notes, many in staccato format.

Ben Abbott narrated the explanatory bridges between the opera’s numerous scenes. Egypt’s authorities of tradition — a high priest, general, and governmental advisor — were effectively sung (Friday) by Jacob Williams, Keith Schwartz, and Zachary Coates and (Saturday) by Lorenzo Garcia, Jeremy Johnson, and Jason Eck.

The dozens upon dozens of costumes, designed by Linda Pisano, are gorgeous. The Douglas Fitch sets — mostly moving and circling platforms, rolling panels, and pieces and fabrics that descend and ascend, including a golden sun — served the scene and action well, their impact enhanced by Todd Hensley’s expert lighting. In all, a major undertaking auspiciously accomplished.

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