Search Results for akhnaten
If you’re wondering what happened to my 2019 ENO Akhnaten reviews I will have to disappoint you. They are not going to happen. One day I will probably want to publicly write/talk about Akhnaten again in one context or another but the two shows I saw last week have brutally become part of my personal mythology so the door is closed on them.
The brown and gold sands of time dissipate to uncover the shadows of Egyptian dieties slowly twisting into 3D from their customary flat positions. Plastic screen-doors on the bottom tier of the stage half conceal the shrouded body of the late pharao. I like that, plastic + mummy. It is traditional but not completely. People in white coats fuss with the body. It feels like a lost X-Files episode.
Last night was my second time seeing Akhnaten live. I liked it more than the first time. The fact that I’ve been obsessively listening to it for the past week might have something to do with it. But perhaps that’s how this one works, it slowly insinuates itself into your awareness (like this).
The 15 March performance will be recorded for BBC3. One hopes there will be a DVD as well? It’s not like the market is crawling with Akhnaten productions.
My interest in the last installment of Glass’s trilogy can be traced back via this blog, the biggest success to date of my Thursday’s Something Else series (on first hearing it I called it “soothing classical music” 😉 ). It’s been a slow burner indeed but constantly at the back of my mind. No wonder people use terms like “mesmerising”. The more you dig, the more there is to discover. As usual, nothing focuses your attention more than a live performance (or two). Perhaps it’s because I’m very visual, but I focus better if I actually see what’s happening. Even watching the bow pulsate over strings makes it all more enjoyable. The cello features heavily and it was a pleasure to watch and listen, as was the brass section, the winds (especially the prominent flute(s) and bass clarinet (ftw!)) and the various percussion – epecially this one.
For this special event I chanced on the £20 “secret seat” twice. I’m so satisfied with my luck that I highly recommend the secret seat scheme. Both seats were in the Dress Circle, the first in row D and the second in row A (no heads in front! and awesome view of the orchestra – did you know Maestra sings along with the chorus?).
Also because it was so special (ENO had last mounted it in 1985) I bought a programme and from it I learned that Hymn to the Sun is a chaconne, Glass making a point of referencing Baroque style writing. The cello obligato part is indeed a thing of beauty. I’m still not sold on the vocal part. It wasn’t helped by the fact that ARC was – here and there – inaudible. Not quite sure what was going on but I don’t remember it from last time. Who knows, memory is very selective. To be fair to him, he soared when called for in his duets/trios with his ladies.
Friday, though, I was under the Balcony overhang which I more or less blamed for whatever was inaudible (mainly bass Clive Bayley as Aye, Nefertiti’s father; barely heard again, kind of annoying, as his part is rather interesting judging by this). Funny thing: this time around the jugglers dropped some of their balls/candles – something else I didn’t remember happening on Friday.
Choreography. The subject matter asks for the opposite kind of acting than what you normally hope for in opera. Namely, not naturalistic. It really feels more like dance than “acting” – underwater dancing, at that. But it works and it adds immensely to the hypnotic nature of the music. I thought Rebecca Bottone as Queen (Mum) Tye had the best knack for this. She looked right at home and (emotionally) moving to boot. She also gets points for great pitch (and ping and stamina) in the insane vocalise during The Temple, when Akhnaten and Tye banish the cult of Amon. In another hark back to Baroque tropes we get ha-ha-ha-has that are actual hahahahas (it feels like they are laughing at the High Priest). Gotta love ’em. Here they came off a lot more comical than in the Stuttgart recording – and what with the jugglers, even playful – so great job all.
Contrasts. It is, I think, unusual in the DVD age to discover an opera via an audio recording. But since this is not a frequently staged opera, I, like most other people, am mainly acquainted with the 1984 Stuttgart version. I enjoyed the Stuttgart Scribe better in the opening recit (Open are the double doors of the horizon, unlocked are its bolts1) because I felt the mythical mood needed a remote, monotonous presentation. But I liked the ENO Scribe (bass Zachary James) better in the recit preceeding The City, the scene that depicts the building of Akhnaten’s new capital, where his lively, theatrical rendition fits the buzz and excitment of the new.
This brings me back to the acting in Hymn to the Sun. I said last time that ARC did not possess the kind of charisma needed to carry this pivotal moment. Well, on seeing it again I think the fault isn’t entirely his (plus he did very well in the comical/violent Temple2 scene). It is true that he has a very ethereal presence – which fits the rest of the performance – but the personnenregie did not help him out here. Along with the two different ways I feel the Scribe should act, I am now convinced that we need both approaches for Akhnaten as well. There are plenty moments of contrast in this opera so I’m sure a production will one day successfully incorporate both.
Jugglers. We had jugglers, who very subtly introduced and carried to the end the ball motif. They started innocuous enough from the getgo, as if humbly providing a bit of pizzazz during the ceremonies. Only later – when they juggle them around the newly crowned Akhnaten – it turns out that their balls are foreshadowing the greatest ball (of fire). Astute detail, as I understand Amenhotep III had already planted the seeds of a revolt against a too powerful clergy. Another neat trick is how they intentionally drop the balls when Akhnaten is attacked and killed. It’s all very simple but it looks great. In the Epilogue, where we have the ghosts of the past the jugglers return pushing the balls on the ground, recalling dung beetles (and tumbleweed). But speaking of the Epilogue, I wonder why Akhnaten and the ladies appear in the afterlife dressed as their pre-Aton-loving selves3?
I had an epilogue of my own: from the side of the Dress Circle there is an exit that spits you out right into the street in 2min flat. I don’t remember ever getting out of a theatre so quickly before. You walk into a sort of loading bay which doubles as homeless shelter by night.
Go and see it if you can, perhaps in Los Angeles, since it’s done in colaboration with LA Opera.
- What a great line! ↩
- I especially enjoyed how he crept from the top tier, where the Horuses were flapping their giant wings. His nimble moves reminded me a bit of Dumaux’s scene stealing Tolomeo in the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. ↩
- Even stranger is that Akhnaten’s cermonial robe, as well as Nefertiti’s, has many mini skulls sewn into it. By contrast, their (identical) robes from The Family scene are of beautiful white gauze, my favourite of the bunch. ↩
What the Chorus sounds like it’s singing in The Funeral of Amenhotep III:
Hush! Hush, a little! x2
Look at me! And him! x4
Lava fizzy etc.
This bit of the libretto is in Ancient Egyptian and sends the pharao off into eternal life. So not that far off, eh? Lava fizzy.
Ankh, ankh, en mitak
Live life, thou shall not die
Yewk heh er heh
Thou shall exist for millions of millions of years
Aha eh heh
For millions of millions of years
(Patrick Joiner made it easy for all of us to follow the text).
When I first heard about this new ENO production I hoped it wouldn’t be traditional. Well, it is but I can’t fault it much. It’s got its inner logic and the key moments are done with enough imagination. Visually it’s very close to stunning. I’m not sure why the costumes (all beautiful) mix Victorian style with the more or less abstract Ancient Egyptian. There seems to be an unwritten rule that productions must nod in some way to the country where the opera is being given. The very literal Egyptian “heads” are on the kitsch side but I don’t mind if anyone disagrees. On the other hand the lyrical scene of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s act II duet was done in a fittingly abstract manner, with just them two on stage entertwining matching red robes.
Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Nefertiti: Emma Carrington
Tye: Rebecca Bottone
Horemhab: James Cleverton
Aye: Clive Bayley
High Priest of Amon: Colin Judson
Scribe: Zachary James
the 6 daughters of Akhnaten and Nefertiti: Clare Eggington/ Alexa Mason/ Rosie Lomas/ Anna Huntley/ Katie Bray/ Victoria Gray
young Tutankhamun: Joshua Simpson
Conductor: Karen Kamensek | ENO Orchestra and Chorus
The libretto has a basic plot (Akhnaten’s rise and fall from power) but there’s plenty abstract stuff, especially in act II which is about Akhnaten’s implementation of his new cultural/political vision. Because it’s “out there” for his time it’s of course rich in symbols. On the other hand Amenhotep III’s funeral (which starts the proceedings) is a high tech version of “as literal as it gets”. Interesting for those curious about Ancient Egyptian royal funerary rituals, probably very informative for some people on my row who wondered aloud why did (the new and improved) Akhnaten have breasts. Nobody seemed to wonder why Akhnaten was written as a countertenor but that would’ve partly answered their question.
Glass, Minimalism – this is not the kind of opera you want to sit through if you can’t take repetition. It certainly needs subtlety in handling the transitions from one musical phrase to the next and in conveying the lyricism of act II, as I wouldn’t say Glass is a titan at writing vocal music. Maestra did a pretty good job with all this. The chorus added a lot of pizzazz with its very engaging interventions. It baffles the mind that the powers that be want to trim it down when everybody agrees it’s one of the main assets of the ENO.
Regardless of what one thinks of repetition, the endless arpeggios do fit the subject matter and the direction was centred on slowness of movement which added to the hypnotic nature of the thing. You settle into something as close to a trance-like state as possible without chemical help (though it would be interesting to experience it with the help of “street meds”) and just let music and visuals do their work, whatever that may be. It doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that needs overthinking on our part.
It being the first night I suppose some things need some tweaking – such as the orchestra covering the vocals during Amenhotep III’s funeral, which is drum/brass heavy. The three mains – Akhnaten, Nefertiti (his wife) and Tye (his mum) needed a bit of time to adjust to each other during their trio in the Window of Appearances but worked well afterwards.
Naturally Akhnaten has the chunkiest bit to sing. I found ARC rather on the bleaty side and really wondered how Sabadus would’ve sounded in this role, as it’s very high and his beautiful tone would work with the otherworldliness that Akhnaten needs to project throughout and especially during his act II hymn. Dramatically that is a pivotal moment in the opera, calling for a singer of considerable charisma. I wasn’t convinced ARC posses that level of charisma or the versatility needed to switch from the highly stylised to the engagingly realistic.
During the first and third acts Akhnaten acts in a hieratic manner but act II (especially the hymn) is the moment where we get a glimpse of the real him. So to say “real him”, as I personally don’t see Akhnaten so much as a person, rather as something. That something being autocracy, personal independence – a proto-Romantic ideal. The hymn is a moment of realness amidst pose and ritual.
The interesting thing that art history teaches us about Akhnaten is that his cultural revolution included an overhaul of the way pharaos were depicted visually, namely more realistic than before or after. But not too realistic, as he indeed was pictured with some feminine features, hence the breasts in this production. In that sense I think it was telling that he first appears on stage in the nude which thus leaves no doubt about his gender, only to have his appearence stylised after his reinvention as Akhnaten. I don’t think this curious change in image was explained by art historians but this production offers some ideas. Aside from the beginning when he ascends to the throne, Akhnaten is seen almost always in the company of women, which he seems to identify with. It is implied he has no interest in war and spends all his time with his family, which includes 6 daughters and wants the same for his kingdom.
The ending had a rather neat twist: the Scribe (the ancient narrator who keeps us abreast of plot development during the opera, now a history lecturer) talks to a class of not very interested students about how Akhnaten’s image and name was erased from history and his city has survived only in very poor condition to the point there’s not much to visit. Pretty piss poor job at erasing his name and image if 3600 years later we’re attending an opera based on his life… so the “ghosts” of Akhnaten and his ladies are lurking.
There’s more to say – of course – but I’ll leave that for next week, when I’m seeing it again.
- We often hear singers talk about their roles, but most of us aren’t aware of what accompanying instrumentalists think. Today I found this snippet in which Principal Clarinetist Anthony McGill talks about that
amazing gorgeous sexybeautiful moment in Tito known to us as Parto:
- In other news, let me remind you that tickets for ENO’s Akhnaten have gone on general sale yesterday. As usual I got enthusiastic and decided to go for two Secret Seats (4 and 8 March). I’m almost as curious about what seats I get as about the production! I also have a feeling thadieu can’t wait to book her seat for La forza del destino 😉
1 August was the date Glyndebourne reserved for people under 30 to flock to this production of Pelléas et Mélisande – I’ve never seen so many truly young people at the opera! It was disconcerting until I realised what was going on. My first thought was why does Debussy bring out so many young people as opposed to Handel? 😉 Heh. Once I will make a point to go for the under 30 performance of a Handel opera.
My relationship with Debussy is generally positive, reason for which I attended. It was the same in this case. Musically I find much to appreciate about his anti-opera, though I can’t say I ever get to the point of loving it like I do Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle1. To my ears it’s always very listenable, though a bit too loose structurally to grip me.
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Mélisande: Christina Gansch
Geneviève: Karen Cargill
Arkel: Brindley Sherratt
Pelléas: John Chest
Yniold: Chloé Briot
Doctor: Michael Mofidian
Shepherd: Michael Wallace
Conductor: Robin Ticciati | London Philharmonic Orchestra and The Glyndebourne Chorus
Director: Stefan Herheim
The subject is a more complicated matter. Obsessive jealousy isn’t a favourite plot, and the woman character as cipher is tedious as far as I’m concerned. I do understand the validity of presenting characters who never quite get each other’s motives (that’s rather realistic for an opera interested in the elusiveness of emotion) and I think my reaction to the cipher woman comes out of the frustration of having seen so many men insist on writing about women without bothering to communicate with them long enough to start making sense of them. Though making sense is hardly what Debussy had in mind here, so even if it irks me, it’s not fair to bitch too much about it in this case.
The three main characters (Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud) are all presented via their emotions first and foremost. When Golaud and and Mélisande first meet, she’s acting severely traumatised, but we of course never find out why. He’s lost in the woods. Pelléas falls deeply in love with Mélisande as soon as he sees her. Later on, she tells Golaud that she’s unhappy in their relationship (which, duh! he saves her and immediately marries her because what other course of action can there be? Plus his wife has died and his father says in so many words that a wife will distract him from “unsavoury actions”) but puts it in a it’s not you, it’s me way, that rings true to this day – people only say that when they’re afraid of the other one’s reaction to the truth. He, of course, flies off the handle and starts suspecting Pelléas, who, by virtue of being young, is more suited to her.
As the opera goes on we learn that we’re dealing with unreliable witnesses and Golaud’s frustration with pushing for
his the truth culminates with him directly asking Mélisande(‘s ghost?) whether there was anything between her and Pelléas, to which the answer is, of course, inconclusive. This was my favourite scene in the entire opera. We can never know, especially when we push for a certain answer which has more to do with our insecurities than with evidence. But at this point it’s not even clear whether the whole thing plays only in his mind or if it actually happened (Herheim does a good job at keeping it unclear).
If this was the high point of the opera, the lowest – for me – was the romantic scene between Pelléas and Mélisande, where he comes to – so to speak – serenade her below the tower when Golaud has locked her (ie, their bedroom). He asks her to let her hair down so he can touch it and basically make out with it. Ok. This scene goes on for quite some time and I did realise, after a while, that it’s supposed to be really romantic and sexy. Dear reader, I have a romantic deficiency and I actually fell asleep on my feet, to the point I was about to fall down, but luckily was jolted awake midfall. No joke 😉
And, indeed, this is an opera where everything is deadly serious, aside from a rather unintentionally comic moment when Pelléas says that his grandfather, who has been gravely ill, has woken up and upon seeing him commented that he (Pelléas) looks like someone who doesn’t have long to live, so he’d better go travelling.
The production by Herheim seemed fine to me but I have never seen another one for this opera, neither do I know it enough to have thought about it before. I think it covers everything and deals with the issues at the heart of the plot. He says in the Glyndebourne interview printed in the booklet that he has incorporated the organ from the Glyndebourne Organ Room because it looks so ominous, even more so because it is not used at all for its music making in the opera, just as a visual symbol (gothic, oppresive, old school mores etc.). I would argue that making every production Glyndebourne related can turn into a bit of a gimmick but, fair enough, why not use the organ if it makes sense? Whether having Glyndebourne goers show up in the last scene is closer to gimmick or not depends on your feelings.
I wasn’t invested enough to feel one way or another, but that’s more Debussy’s fault than Herheim’s – or my detachment from this particular plot2. I did enjoy how he used the sets (the dining-drawing room of the big, old house) for every scene, with only certain lighting details to signify a dream sequence or walls retracting for literally more space. Also the central pedestal-well-sarcophagus-grotto was another aptly used multifunctional symbol.
Purves as Golaud was great, but I guess to no surprise, as his role in Written on Skin is very similar and it really suits him dramatically. In fact, before the intermission I kept thinking of parallels between the two3. Things do change quite a bit (for the better) in the last two acts. The others were good, too, though in spite of its name, this opera is mostly about Golaud (or like Hippolyte at Aricie, where they main characters just go on and on – she ❤ him, he ❤ her – and other more interesting things happen around them).
Speaking of its long ranging influence on 20th and 21st operas, the beginning of Bluebeard is very similar (for my taste Bartók improved on whatever Debussy tried with Pelléas et Mélisande) and I swear the distinctive flute part in Akhnaten comes right out of here. The libretto must be made up of 80% words of Latin origin, as I could never follow a French text to such a degree before (also thanks to the clear – if not always very French – diction employed by the singers).
A wonderful Summer day wrapped up my 2018 G-season. A welcome surprise this year was the Southernrail trains, who gave me no trouble whatsoever4. Looks like I’ll be less G-busy next year, but you never know…
- But then I really like the plot in that case and the language is a lot more poetic and the music much more structured. ↩
- You may not be surprised to remember that I did like how Guth used the Glyndebourne grounds for Tito. The grass is indeed a very important feature of the local landscape and the pond at the very back of the garden is mysterious enough to fuel the imagination. ↩
- What is considered scary in entertaiment has changed a lot in the past 100 years, interesting since our actual life is a lot more sheltered. ↩
- Unlike bloody Ryanair, who has added really unnecessary stress for the past month and a detour via Munich for my next outing. ↩
Good news, ENO seems to be powering on most cylinders. Some interesting things written in English:
Oct – Nov 2018 Porgy and Bess! How cool, I’ve always wanted to see it, so yay ENO.
Feb 2019 Akhnaten is back already! 😀 I’m going twice again. Whoever wants to come along, please do, it’s a lot of fun. Maybe they’ll film it this time?
Apr 2019 Jack the Ripper – I wonder if it’s ok. I’ve always been in two minds about the subject – on the one hand unsolved mystery = yes, on the other serial killers = eh
May 2019 Dido (without Aeneas?) Dido and Belinda?
There’s also a new Salome (but this Strauss has been seen around town in recent years so I don’t know), and a new Merry Widow that could be fun.
Now that we’re nearing the end of 2017, 2016 memories have started to take firmer shape.
Three productions had a profound impact on yours truly this year: ENO’s Akhnaten and ROH’s The Nose and Oedipe. Hard to miss that all of them are 20th century operas. Perhaps they just lend themselves a lot better to contemporary takes. Also, to apparently fresh takes, as none is particularly often performed. The thrill of the lesser spotted is its own reward.
Becoming who you are
Akhnaten the opera is, for me, a great example of an intelligent way of dealing with a subject (apparently) alien to our contemporary sensibilities. Our sources of understanding are 2000 years of Christianity, the Curse of the Pyramids, National Geographic aesthetics and Tutankhamen as pop culture symbol. The assertion of the self resonates through centuries.
The Nose is comedy in its purest sense. Laughing – letting go of words – is letting go of rationality (= identity). We laugh at something when it becomes absurd and words to describe what is happening fail us. Laughing is also an act of confidence: identity is revealed as silly self importance.
Identity as burden
Oh, poor Oedipe, he is cursed to be who he is. The terracotta living wall is visceral and primordial, sun-infused and of slithery mud at the same time.
Given that I haven’t been to Glyndebourne in a few years, I don’t know if this general booking system is new or not. In any case, you apparently can’t sneak in before the appointed time. Though I got in 14secs after 6pm, I was #622 in the queue. Luckily I was tag-teaming with Baroque Bird, who was in the 300s already. So Team London will be there for La clemenza di Tito on 31 July (Glyndebourne will broadcast the 3 August performance) and yours truly will see a couple more shows (Hipermestra and Hamlet in June plus another go at Tito in August). Let’s hope for clement weather 🙂
edit: we now have Annio (Anna Stéphany) and Publio (Clive Bayley). Interesting that Stéphany is Annio, seeing as how she’s already sung Sesto. But I do rather see her as Annio. You may remember I saw Bayley as Aye in Akhnaten last year and when I say saw I mean it. It’s going to be nice actually hearing him 😉