Monday, November 14, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Send in the Clowns" (on Philip Glass' opera Aknaten)

send in the clowns

by Douglas Messerli

Philip Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Ridell, and Jerome Robbins (libretto), Philip Glass (music) Akhnaten: An Opera in Three Acts / Los Angeles, LAOpera, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion / the performance Howard Fox and I saw was a matinee on Sunday, November 13, 2016

For me, it’s admittedly hard to know quite what I feel about Philip Glass’s operas, particularly the three signature works, Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagrapha (1980), and Akhnaten (1984), all three which, since visiting the last opera yesterday at the LAOpera company’s production, I have now seen in excellent productions.
      Surely they are all beautiful pageants, with the chordal collection of the composer’s repeated and shifting motifs often creating sounds of shimmering perfection. In all three productions, the sets and costumes were innovative and, in Akhnaten, quite stupendous in their effects. In all the productions I’ve seen, the singers and other figures were superior. Particularly, in Akhnaten, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges sang quite brilliantly, with the LAOpera Chorus performing at the highest level (despite the unfortunate collapse, in early scene of the opera, of a chorus member, which required several of her fellow singers to help her off; we can only pray that she was not seriously hurt.).
      Despite the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s continued acoustical problems, the LAOpera orchestra, this time under the baton of the young wunderkind conductor/composer Matthew Aucoin, came through well, except in a very few instances where, from my balcony position, we heard more tuba than other instrumentation. The audience, far more diverse than usual and, seemingly, quite sophisticated and eager to enjoy this production, clearly took immediate pleasure in it.
       And yet…in all three works, two of them sung in ancient languages, and the earlier work often singing the language of counting, my companion Howard and I both felt a kind of ennui as the singers moved through space in snail-pace deliberateness, shifting from opera’s more-standard narrative sweep to an opera made up of images closer to tableaux vivants than to normative theater.
      I feel strange to appear to be expressing dissatisfaction with that fact, since I have long expressed my love of just such a narrative technique in the works of Djuna Barnes, and in the filmmaking of Sergei Paradjanov, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and others. Perhaps it’s just not as effective on stage, particularly when accounting a rather exciting tale such as the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten’s fascinatingly short life. In fiction you can combine, as does Barnes, the “stops” in the fiction with a strong narrative overlay, using the temporary tableaux as evidence for the effects of the story. In film, directors such as Paradjanov link their tableaux vivants into a series of narrative events. But in theater such as this, in which is no true narrative structure, the time-stopped scenes become mere spectacle.
      While Einstein featured the abstract, the mathematical and scientific theories of the thinker, and Satyagrapha dealt with the sometimes equally abstract world of politics, Akhnaten’s is a world of religion, and a radical new religion to boot.*
     Perhaps it is appropriate, at least in the early and late scenes, to bathe the new pharaoh’s, and, later, dead pharaoh’s experiences in the slow and measured pace of rituals, letting the driving music, most excitingly presented in tympani and brass (there are no violins in this darker-sounding work) create the inner narrative energy. This Egypt is still a dark place of priests who worship dozens of deities, all of whom must be given their due before the new King can be crowned. And it is not accidental that for the first 20 minutes of this opera, the work’s hero is entirely speechless, often while nude—in short, vulnerable and even unprepared for his soon-to-be glorious clothing. Indeed, this King remains partially naked, and therefore, an easy target throughout much of his life.
     It is also clear that the drop-dead love duet between Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti might not allow for more action than the two walking slowly across stage, each swathed in an endless train of red robes that become intertwined. After all, Tristan and Isolde often stand—at least in most productions—in near motionless scenes to sing their great love duets.
        I can even understand why Akhnaten’s great hymn to the sun, a lovely, quiet piece which Costanzo sings in the very front of the stage—again, while appearing naked, with a gossamer robe to which are appliqu├ęd breasts and, now, a vagina where he real penis once was located—does not require nor even want much movement.
       Yet even later events when Akhnaten sings, quite agitatedly about his vision of a new city to celebrate his sun god, or, when he and his family are coming under attack from the Egyptian citizenry for his insistence on a near-monotheistic worship (scholars now argue, that, at least in the early years, Akhanaten’s world was much more open for individuals to maintain some of their older beliefs), or when the Pharaoh actually comes under attack, being killed in front of his wife, mother, and six daughters do we really need the same slow pace?
       To somewhat entertain us, director Phelim McDermott sends in the clowns—in this a team of British jugglers who throw balls and other objects, mostly circular—paralleling, of course, the father and mother sun from which Akhnaten argues he has emanated. Yet even their actions are often slowed down as they are forced to slowly crawl across the stage floor and move gradually in and out of the singers. And when they do suddenly spring into actions, quite adeptly tossing their balls and clubs through the air, they appear as more of a distraction than an integral element of Glass’s work. 
       Strangely, while Glass’s score hardly even lets up in its driving momentum, the fact that he generally prefers to skip stage action or slow it down to such a gradual motion that it appears they are moving in a kind of dream space, he also enervates his characters to such a degree that they appear, themselves, to be unreadable hieroglyphs, and become difficult to comprehend in real life.
        Akhnaten and his world, indeed, are difficult for our time to comprehend, since most of his city, art, and communications were destroyed by his son Tutankhamun and the later pharaoh Horemhab. But it would have been nice, just once, to see these figures behave like real human beings instead of historical ghosts. And, despite the long length of this opera, I’d have given up the jugglers any day just to hear another, more revealing aria by Akhnaten and Nefertti.
        I can only commend LAOpera, however, for staging this stunningly scored work. Perhaps, in the future, we can get a less mannered presentation of it.

*I should add that, although the opera seems to give tribute to Akhnaten for his attempt to change his country from polytheism to monotheism, and Freud, in his important study From Moses to Monotheism attempts to connect those changes with Akhnaten’s rule, I am, personally speaking, not so sure I mightn’t prefer the early Egyptian and later Greek and Roman polytheism, which I recount in several of the essays of this volume. These people, at least, lived with a far larger ability to assimilate different religious views. As we know, monotheism most always tended to want to destroy all other religious viewpoints, a history of religious monotheism which remains with us even today, and helped to give rise to groups such as ISIS and even the American Klu Klux Klan.

Los Angeles, November 14, 2016

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