For all the thunder that surrounds his productions, Philip Glass is undersung and underpraised. His superb memoir, Words without Music, recounts how he entered the University of Chicago, aged 16, without having finished high school. He left, I think, in 1956, three years before I entered U of C as a first-year undergraduate. He left a few traces of himself behind, and much later I discovered that we had a good many U of C friends in common. My first memory of him is sometime in the 1970s at Oxford, when his ensemble performed his hypnotic, broken-chord music. They, and we the audience, were seated on the floor in one of the galleries of what was then the Museum of Modern Art Oxford (now Modern Art Oxford).
Since then I’ve heard performances (and finally met him) in Salzburg, and been privileged to see his 2013 English National Opera Walt Disney homage (or demolition job) The Perfect American.
What has given me the most pleasure is that I’ve been lucky enough to see all three of his “portrait” operas, riffing on the concerns and lives of great historical figures – politics in Satyagraha, his “Gandhi” opera (2007, revived in 2010 and 2013); science in the 5-hour-long 1976 Einstein on the Beach (which I saw at the Barbican in 2012); and now religion, in Akhnaten (1983) staged by the English National Opera.
And “see” is the operative word. Glass has a visual sensibility unusual even in opera composers – which partly explains the frequent use of visual art venues for his ensemble performances. He’s hit the artistic jackpot, though, in his association with Improbable Theatre Company’s artistic director, Phelim McDermott, who not only did Disney with Glass, but also the London première of Satyagraha and now a new production of Akhnaten.
The historical Akhnaten was Pharaoh of Egypt c. 1351-1334 BCE, and is known to posterity because he was supposed to have made radical changes to the ancient Egyptian pantheon, instituting monotheism. To be blunt, the ideas behind this piece are not terribly striking or, for that matter, apparent. The libretto seems to be in Egyptian (Coptic, presumably) and, in one case, Hebrew, apart from some (amplified) spoken English texts. For the first time in a long while at the ENO, there were no surtitles – a hint that the words are not terribly important, at least in this production.
Musically, the evening is a thrilling one. There are motifs recognisable from other of Glass’s operas and, at the end of the 3-hour piece, I’d take my oath that I detected teasing references to the end of Wagner’s Ring, if only in the chord-changes. The cast is fine, led from strength by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose tessitura coincides with that of the mezzo, Emma Carrington, playing his wife, Nefertiti – so that you have wonderful moments when her voice swoops emphatically below his. The score is both typical Glass and not so: there are, for example, no violins, so the tonalities are dark and warm, with the solo voices swirling above the orchestra. The use of percussion – the first time he called for a percussion section in an opera – provides some of the rhythmic drive we usually associate with Glass’ propulsive repetitions of arpeggios.
Really, though, this production doesn’t feature words or music, but spectacle. I took my opera-virgin son-in-law to the second performance of Akhnaten, and he was immediately reminded of Cirque de Soleil (but without trapezes). I can see why: Kevin Pollard’s costumes are elaborate and eye-popping, and the director has instituted a scene in which the (good sport) Constanzo is ritually dressed on stage from willy-shivering nudity to robes supported by a sort of all-encompassing body-cage. Bruno Poet’s magical lighting effects combine with Tom Pye’s striking, often highly mobile double- and treble-tier sets, to give you a sense of space so complex that you often feel you can’t take it in at a single glance.
Then McDermott, and his “skills ensemble choreographer” Sean Gandini, move the principals and large chorus around the set, extremely slowly, but with such precision, that you can’t take your eyes off them. Especially because the chorus is often moving white balls from one hand to the other, while the ten members of the “skills ensemble” are actually juggling. White balls zip back and forth, fall on the floor on purpose, fly suddenly high in the air, then move seemingly horizontally. Sometimes they juggle three balls, sometimes what looks like half a dozen. The greatest praise I can give to Phelim McDermott is to say that it all looks completely natural and appropriate,
It’s a spectacle not to be missed. But I think my son-in-law’s next opera ought perhaps to be Tosca.