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Glass's 'Akhnaten' goes awry

The recent New York premiere of Philip Glass's newest opera, ''Akhnaten,'' found the New York State Theater abounding with the now-predictable assortment of types who have for the moment made Glass an ''in'' composer. Also intermingled were the usual New York City Opera subscribers, used to non-challenging Puccini and Verdi, for whom the entire evening must have seemed arcane.

''Akhnaten'' is not, in any real sense, an opera, unless one chooses to think of all theatrically oriented voice-and-orchestra works as operatic. Mr. Glass actually tends to talk of his pieces in terms of music-theater. But even as a musical-theatrical encounter, ''Akhnaten,'' as seen at the City Opera (and earlier this fall at the Houston Grand Opera), is severely wanting, particularly to anyone who saw Glass's ''Satyagraha'' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music three years ago. For that work, based on the life and times of Mohandas Gandhi, designer Robert Israel created a stunning series of visual images which fully captured the period, the social strata, the colonial tensions of mid-century India. Abetted by Hans Nieuwenhuis's direction, the images fused with the music to create a unique entity, far greater than the sum of its parts.

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In ''Akhnaten,'' Mr. Israel got the imagery all wrong. Akhnaten was Pharaoh of a sophisticated culture, a multifaceted society whose monumental, lavish, and refined iconography reflected the elaborate, complex religious values of the day. Mr. Israel's iconography is barbaric and crassly pagan, with jarring homages to the painter Magritte. The viewer cannot garner any sense of era, society, or locale.

Director David Freeman, who heads the much-talked-about Opera Factory in London (as well as those in Sydney and Zurich) reveled in stage cliches. That favorite dramatic ethos - ''when in doubt, keep 'em moving'' - was given its formal apotheosis opening night. The stage - transformed into a giant sandbox with wading pool - became a weird, sunbathed playground for all sorts of odd, juvenile types to make messes.

The deformed, ugly, but brilliant Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, soon to become Akhnaten, founded the first monotheistic religion in civilized society. Mr. Freeman, however, chose to make him a fully explicit hermaphrodite, an effete, bald, Boy George type (including lavish eye makeup) who preferred making love to his mother and dancing around the stage in the fashion of a besotted child, to being a ruler or a thinker. Freeman's Nefertiti had no profile whatever.

The story line, such as it is, deals more in vignettes and ideas than actual plot. Freeman's choices to elucidate that plot remind one of Marvel Comics. Mr. Glass was outspokenly unhappy with the world-premiere production of ''Akhnaten'' in Stuttgart, West Germany. He insisted on this designer/director team, and in so doing did his opera a great disservice: Since ''Satyagraha'' worked so well, one is left with the realization that Mr. Freeman did not understand the story, the characters, or Mr. Glass's visions.

The performances were adequate, although Glass's vocal writing is rarely gracious to singers. Akhnaten is cast as a countertenor; Christopher Robson's special brand of that singing style is not particularly endearing; so many moments that might have been most beautiful became, instead, moments of great aural discomfort. The rest of the cast - all in their City Opera debuts - did what each had to do with honor. Christopher Keene conducted with a sense that it was all sounding as it should, and the orchestra played very well under the circumstance.

But what, finally, about the music? On its own, there is not much of interest going on in Glass's orchestra at any given point. Even though he uses a full brass section and percussion, the writing and scoring hardly ever reflect any improvement on ''Satyagraha.'' Glass music that lacks strong visual counterpoint becomes less and less enchanting as the patterns and harmonic progressions - with occasional, minute variations - grind along. Mirella Freni

When Katia Ricciarelli canceled her appearances as ''Manon Lescaut'' at the Met (the third consecutive season she has left the company in the lurch at the last minute), Mirella Freni let it be known she was available. Thus, the Met presented Miss Freni in the first three performances of the opera, and New Yorkers had a chance to hear the popular soprano in a role very new to her repertoire.

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Around her was a dispiriting cast - including Ermano Mauro's now bellowy, now inaudible Des Grieux, and David Holloway's inelegant, overwrought Lescaut - conducted with little finesse or beauty by Nello Santi. Miss Freni was in good voice (though not as good as on a Deutsche Grammophon recording, to be released in January); she sang the role securely and occasionally with some insight, particularly in the fourth act. But dramatically, she was remote, uninvolved, indicating that - wonderful singing notwithstanding - this will never be an ideal role for her. 'Barber of Seville'

The Met's revival of Rossini's ''The Barber of Seville'' hardly added luster to an inconsistent season. At least Leo Nucci's Figaro added some vigor to the proceedings, with ringing high notes and a bold sense of characterization, despite a tendency to use dynamics somewhere between loud and overtaxed. In her Met debut, Julia Hamari was determined to be a pert Rosina. Her soft-grained, fluent mezzo sounded undersize for the house. The rest of the singers had little to offer.

The performance ran into problems at the outset with the bizarre conducting of Edoardo Muller in his unexpected Met debut, replacing Silvio Varviso. Mr. Muller, once Claudio Abbado's assistant at La Scala, set unflattering and, occasionally, unsingable tempos. For all the arm-flapping and sudden crouching, the orchestra played merely adequately for him.

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