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Sing Like an Egyptian: A Sight and Slight at the Opera

Akhnaten

Anthony Roth Constanzo as Akhnaten (Photo: Craig T. Mathew)

AKHNATEN Opera Review

LA Opera’s production of composer Philip Glass’ Akhnaten is one of the most stunning operas I’ve ever laid my eyes - and ears - on. It is an optically opulent movable feast for the orbs and ears, imaginatively visualized by the English set designer Tom Pye and costume wizard Kevin Pollard in their LA Opera debuts, heightened and poetically enhanced by lighting designer Bruno Poet of Cornwall. The libretto - which Glass co-wrote with four others, including West Side Story choreographer Jerome Robbins - is a mind-blowing, complex evocation of ancient Egypt (although, as we’ll see below, not without controversy).

This reviewer makes it a practice not to read in their entirety press releases and invitations to operas, films and plays once he has enough information as to decide whether or not to attend and cover the production. This is to avoid plot spoilers (which, as a critic, I am fanatical about in trying to protect my readers from) that will take away from my joy of discovery and surprise. But about 10% of the time this backfires on me, as I end up at shows I would have avoided like the plague had I only finished reading that darn announcement. And, once in a great while, I regret not having read the news release and, in particular, program information beforehand, as it would really have enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the undertaking while it was taking place.

Akhnaten

Anthony Roth Constanzo as Akhnaten and J'Nai Bridges as Nefertiti (Photo: Craig T. Mathew)

Such is the case with Akhnaten, as I am completely ignorant of and in a state of de-Nile re: 14th century BCE (Before Common Era) Egypt (although my ancestors were presumably slaves there building the pyramids, etc.). After experiencing this three-act extravaganza, I rued the fact that I had not read in advance the explanatory articles in Performances Magazine, especially Thomas May’s extremely astute, scholarly, extensive, insightful piece. Inside the program LA Opera also included a special pullout on hard paper listing and briefly detailing what takes place, act by act, scene by scene. So, plot spoilers be damned, the fact is, reading the aforementioned (and hey, why not toss in Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings while I’m at it? LOL) will likely equip opera-goers to more fully enjoy the spectacle onstage as it unfolds in real time. Although Bass Zachary James as The Scribe narrates part of the proceedings with the type of resonant voice that might be used to narrate a nighttime pyramid light show, such as “The Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx in Giza,” narrated by Richard Burton.

Okay, having said (or rather, scribbled that), here is the story in a nutshell (minus, as much as possible, those dreaded plot spoilers!): So there’s this dude named Amenhotep IV, the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh who, five years into his ascendancy to the throne, changes his name to the eponymous Akhnaten (former Broadway performer and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, making his LA Op debut). His mother is Queen Tye (Pasadena’s own, soprano Stacey Tappan) and while if you aren’t an Egyptologist you may not have heard of either, you likely have heard of his famous wife, Nefertiti (Washington state mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in her LA Op debut, sporting Her Majesty’s famed blue headgear). Together, Akhnaten and Nefertiti sire six toga-clad daughters, and, perhaps another Egyptian monarch you’ve surely heard of (unless you’ve been living in a pyramid), Tutankhamen (better known to Steve Martin fans as “King Tut”, here played onstage by young Lucas Scheerer), whose tomb was rather famously discovered in the 1920s.

Akhnaten

Zackahry James as the Scribe holding Anthony Roth Constanzo as Akhnaten

After composing 1976’s Einstein on the Beach and 1980’s Mahatma Gandhi-themed Satyagraha, which respectively dealt with science and politics, according to May Glass turned his attention to creating an opera concerned with religion. What attracted the minimalist composer specifically to Akhnaten is that he tried to bring about a theological revolution arguably greater than Martin Luther’s Reformation (which is about to mark its 500th anniversary). Akhnaten attempts to replace Egypt’s polytheistic cult with monotheism - the belief in one god. This sole deity is Aten (aka Ra), the sun god, gloriously, glowingly depicted by Poet and Pye. Sis-boom-rah!

In 1984 Akhnaten world premiered at the Stuttgart State Theatre, directed by the German director Achim Freyer, a Bertolt Brecht disciple best known to LA Opera audiences as the helmer of 2010’s controversial Ring Cycle by Wagner, which made the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s boards look more like Star Wars than a traditional Bayreuth production. In terms of plot, the only thing I’ll add is that Akhnaten’s attempt to change how Egyptians worshipped and his move of the nation’s capital from Thebes to Tell el-Amaerna causes all Hades to break loose.

Conducted by Matthew Aucoin, making his LA Opera mainstage debut, the opera opens with figures behind a screen on a multi-level, phantasmagorical set who are cleverly striking poses similar to positions depicted in hieroglyphics (those primeval emoticons). Throughout its three acts a sense of the ritualistic and supernatural beliefs of ancient Egypt suffuses the opera, all creatively directed by Manchester’s Phelim McDermott, who previously helmed this opera in England.

The scene where Amenhotep III dies and is mummified by doctors clad in white lab coats straight out of Cedars Sinai (Pollard’s costuming is hybrid, ranging from Egyptian stylings to Mardi Gras-like elements to camouflage bodysuits to togas to transparent robes and much more, with a variety of masks featuring animal and other themes) is wildly eye-popping. His son’s fantastical anointment is so imaginatively, fabulously rendered that I almost jumped out of my seat. To prepare for his coronation the tenth pharaoh of the 18th-Dynasty emerges out of a costume and a completely nude Costanzo is sort of passed down a flight of stairs like a rock star atop a mosh pit to where the still Amenhotep IV is garbed in what looks like a hoop dress that would have been right at home at an antebellum cotillion at Tara.

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Juggling (choreographed by London’s Great Gandini) is a recurring motif throughout Akhnaten. Indeed, it turns out that this athletic art was actually practiced by ancient Egyptians. However, in the same way that Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky wrote 1867’s The Gambler, methinks Glass had a metaphorical notion in mind, that the title character was himself a kind of juggler, performing a balancing act that required great skill. The ten camo-clad jugglers in brown body suits reminded me the Blue Man Group.

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Glass’ music is very complicated, combining mellow woodwinds, rousing drumming, bold brass. There are no supertitles; lots of the vocalization is not in Egyptian and is sonorously rendered as sound and chanting. The Scribe speaks in English (Glass, after all, was born in Baltimore) and is delivered as a sort of recitative. There are no supertitles.

Much is made of the fact that Costanzo has that rare countertenor voice. According to Wikipedia (Ed Rampell, master of research!), a countertenor is defined as a “classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice types.” Indeed, Costanzo’s singing was so high pitched that theatergoers may have wondered if he was actually a castrato. However, the aforementioned nude scene graphically demonstrated that this, indeed, was not the case. In later scenes, he appears in transparent robes, as does the splendiferous Bridges, so those uncomfortable with live, onstage full frontal nudity may want to skip this production and adults may want to leave the kiddies at home.

Another point of concern for some is the depiction of Egyptians. For instance, 2014’s screen epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, wherein Caucasian Australian actor Joel Edgerton portrayed Ramses and English thesp Christian Bale played Moses, raised some hackles and eyebrows. And let’s not even bother to even go there a la Steve Martin’s “King Tut.” Similarly, the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations and the Black American Political Association of California organized a “Black History Matters” demonstration outside the entrance to the Dorothy Chandler protesting how early Egyptians from North Africa were depicted in Akhnaten. For example, New Yorker Costanzo, who has the title role, is very, very pale, while demonstrators insisted “Pharaohs were Black.” (Before the curtain lifted supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Party were also leafleting the Downtown L.A. Music Center’s outdoors crowd re: Chairman Bob Avakian’s book The New Communism.)

Misrepresentation, cultural misappropriation, etc., are very sensitive subjects which I’ve written about often, including in four film history books that focus on South Seas celluloid stereotypes and the portrayal of Polynesians and to a lesser extent Asians in the movies. It bears noting that the 25 or so sign-holding protesters right outside the entrance to the Chandler were at all times peaceful and respectful as they aired their concerns. Inside the aforementioned Performances Magazine, which is handed out to each ticket buyer before they take their seats, LA Opera included an insert entitled “Statement in Response to Black History Matters” that asserted a number of points.

These included that LA Opera has a policy of non-traditional casting, and the ability of “performers to sing unamplified over a full symphony orchestra” was a key consideration in casting roles, taking precedence over the ethnicity, age and so on of the sopranos, tenors, et al, selected for various parts. (Indeed, this reviewer has previously pointed out that various singers do not match the beauty, age, et al, attributes ascribed to their characters.)

The statement went on to maintain that a countertenor with Costanzo’s vocal gifts is extremely rare. (Ridley Scott, et al, had no such excuse for casting Exodus’ putative Egyptians, for that North African nation has a distinguished tradition of skilled actors that include Oscar nominee Omar Sharif, Sayed Badreya, Ahmed Ahmed, etc.) And in fairness, several members of the multi-culti cast (that also included Asians, such as the South Koreans baritone Kihun Yoon as Horemhab and soprano So Young Park as a daughter, as well as Caucasians like Stacey Tappan as Queen Tye) were indeed Black, including Bridges as Queen Nefertiti, tenor Frederick Ballentine as High Priest of Amon and bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell as Aye.

I recently saw the play Lend Me a Tenor at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts which deals with the mistaken identities of two Caucasian opera singers who are in Blackface because they are portraying Othello in Verdi’s opera. The playbill for the comedy tried to explain the use of Blackface - which is widely viewed as being derived from offensive minstrel shows - within the context of operatic traditions. Although it is worth noting that during his prime, Paul Robeson - who starred as Shakespeare’s Moor on Broadway 1943-1945 and earlier at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1930 - had the talent to have played Otello for a production of Verdi’s version, but he was not allowed to cross the era’s “opera so white” color line.

As with the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy, the issue of operatic conventions and genuine, authentic, accurate ethnic representations - especially by artists who are not descended from the group being depicted - is a very complex one, perhaps as delicate a balancing act as ancient Egyptian juggling. Prominent disclaimers (such as, you know, “The Pharaoh wasn’t really a honky”) may be a partial solution to this cultural conundrum. Having said that, I wonder if any of the demonstrators at the Chandler saw Akhnaten - and if so, what their view of this truly spectacular staging of ancient evenings in the realm of the Pharaohs was?

The Contemporary Opera Initiative presents Philip Glass’ Akhnaten Thursdays Nov. 10 and Nov. 17 and Saturday Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays Nov. 13 and Nov. 27 at 2:00 p.m. at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell