Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

E pluribus unum

March 28, 2011

 
Jochen Kowalsi in the title role of Akhnaten Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO.

A friend of mine who’d seen a new production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten on its opening night last weekend gave me an assessment prior to my seeing the second performance in the run on Sunday. “It was well done, but it’s not opera.” Or at least not what she considered opera. And to be fair, à chacun son gout. But then again Monteverdi and Handel probably would have said the same thing about Madama Butterfly or Tristan und Isolde. (In the former case they would have been right.) But like it or not, Glass’ Akhnaten is indeed very much an opera and nearly a quarter of a century after its debut, it arrived on the West Coast for the first time in a complete form. Need you ask? Who else in Southern California but Andreas Mitisek and Long Beach Opera would even attempt this. (Well, the Los Angeles Philharmonic once would have, and did in a partial concert performance in 2006, but that was a different time…) Akhnaten, like Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, reflects on the life of a person who radically changed the way the world around his thought. True story - shortly after ascending to the throne, the son of Amenhotep III changes his name to Akhnaten and for the first time asserts a monotheistic religion for the people of Egypt compelling them to abandon their many idols. Glass' libretto, a potpourri of different texts in different languages, chronicles the outlines of these monumental changes more than it follows a narrative sequence of events. The scenes that make up the three acts are more ceremonial or processional, although they are often wrapped in some gorgeous, hypnotizing music.

LBO as usual did a remarkable job on an unbelievably small budget with Mitisek playing most major roles from conducting to directing except the actual singing. More on that later, but the other person providing a major influence on the success of Sunday’s performance was interactive video designer Frieder Weiss. The sets were minimal with chorus, dancers, and cast dressed in white and lightly colored casual clothes that when accompanied with some Hieroglyphic-inspired poses were more suggestive of Egypt by way of Robert Wilson than say Aida. (Yes, that’s a good thing.) There was a single riser with a lengthy slanted platform attached to it that served as the only prop outside of some cardboard boxes. But Weiss provided an amazing amount of varied and near constant interactive video that was projected on scrims either in front of or behind the stage action. Thousands of little lights dashed about in response to the vocalists’ movements in some 21st-century version of Brownian motion. The effects were often quite grand and beautiful despite their simplicity and general lack of color, providing context in scenes where the libretto was somewhat more obtuse. It seemed almost shocking to me how much LBO could do with a small budget and the simplest interactive video considering the hugely ineffective and far more expensive vision of “interactive video” Robert Lepage has offered up in his vision of Das Rheingold for The Metropolitan Opera earlier this season. (Note to the Met and Lepage, this is how you do it.)

Musically, the evening show was also quite satisfying. Glass’ music is far more difficult to play than it sounds, at least in terms of stamina, and the orchestra hung in there through the first two acts, which were presented together before the intermission. Most of Akhnaten is built around the chorus who sounded quite good as well. Most notable of the soloists was a last minute replacement. Jochen Kowalski who sang the title role in the first performance on March 19 was announced as ill. However, given the short notice between performances, he still acted in the production on the 27th with Akhnaten’s countertenor part sung by Darryl Taylor. Taylor, like all of the soloists, was mildly amplified and he often was forced to perform while sequestered away on darker corners of the stage with the score. He was superb however and managed to stay on pace with both conductor and Peabody Southwell who was cast as Nefertiti in all of the duets. You couldn’t really ask for more, except more rehearsal time to get him in costume on stage. Let’s hope we see much more of him in that position at LBO and other stages soon. But in the meantime, Long Beach and L.A. were lucky enough to have him and everyone else in this very engaging and beautiful work - call it what you will.

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