Archive for Philip Glass

Akhnaten at ENO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2016 by telescoper

Having had a very stressful time at work over the last few days I decided on the spur of the moment to treat myself to a night at the Opera. The hottest tickets in London right now are for English National Opera’s new production of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, but I managed to get one for Thursday night’s performance. I’m so glad I did, as it really lived up to the the reviews.

The Opera Akhnaten, which had its world premiere in 1983, is based on a real historical figure, Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt over 3300 years ago. Act I begins with the funeral rites of his father Amenhotep III, his son’s installation as Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and the beginning of his 17-year reign alongside his wife Nefertiti.

Roughly five years into his rule, however, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and set up a new, monotheistic religion, in which the Aten (the disk of the Sun) represented the supreme divine influence. Not content with that, he decided to up sticks from the city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) and found a new city called Amarna in the desert. Act II is set in the Amarna period. It seems that, although Akhnaten had revolutionary ideas about religion, the costs of establishing this new way of life, and the resentment it caused among advocates of the old order, put strain on the kingdom of Egypt. In Act III we find Akhnaten and his family in a state of total detachment from the reality of the disintegration of his empire. Ailing and  beset by hostile forces, Akhnaten eventually dies.

After Akhnaten’s death the Amarna project was abandoned, as was the new religion, and the 18th Dynasty resumed with the enthronment of Akhnaten’s son, a young boy by the name of Tutankhamun. Very little remains of the City of Amarna and there seems to have been a systematic attempt to eradicate Akhnaten from historical memory. One suspects that the priests of the old religion played a not inconsiderable role in these developments.

But  Glass’s Akhnaten is more of a reflection or meditation on this extraordinary period than an attempt to depict it via a traditional historical narrative. His minimalist score also challenges the conventions of grand opera. The music develops only incrementally and the actors move in a correspondingly stylised fashion. Each act consists of a set of dreamlike tableaux mixing up the archaeological elements of the story with references to the modern world. In the first Act, for example, the funerary rites of Amenhotep IV involve characters in both ancient and modern dress to emphasize that death has been, and remains, a mystery for all cultures and civilisations.

It’s obviously an enormous challenge to bring such a work to the stage, but this production (developed in conjunction with the theatre company Improbable) rose to that challenge with great imagination. To counter the sense of stasis generated by the music, for example, there was a liberal influsion of brilliantly executed and extremely kinetic juggling. I knew there was going to be juggling  before the performance and had worried that it might be distracting, or even just a gimmick. In fact I think the juggling worked extremely well not only in the context of the opera but also in the context of history; some of the earliest depictions of juggling are from ancient Egypt. The costumes and lighting add even more to the spectacular visual  experience.

I don’t like all of Philip Glass’s music but I do think that Akhnaten is a masterpiece of minimalism. It’s full of subtle and interesting ideas but also extremely accessible, and it creates a strange hypnotic atmosphere which goes perfectly with this staging. The orchestra played the music well, though I felt the brass section could have played with a bit more “bite”, especially in the first Act. The ENO chorus was in excellent voice, as were all the principals: soprano Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye (Akhnaten’s mother) and mezzo Emma Carrington as Nefertiti (Akhnaten’s wife) both sang extremely their demanding parts with great poise.

But I have to make special mention of Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten. He makes his first appearance on stage in Act I completely naked, walking slowly as if in a trance across a gallery and down the stairs in centre stage, and is then dressed in the garb of a Pharoah. His appearance then – slim, athletic, definitely masculine, and I have to say not inconsiderably sexy – contrasts with his increasingly androgynous appearance later on. But it  is his stage presence and the truly remarkable quality of his singing that I will remember.


Akhnaten attempts to commune with the Aten. Picture credit: Guardian

Despite all I have written about the juggling and other aspects of the staging, for me the most powerful scene of the Opera is the last scene of Act II which is effective primarily for its simplicity. Here Akhnaten sings a longish aria in the form of Hymn to the Aten, which is based on an ancient text but bearing striking resemblance to Psalm 104 (a point underlined when the chorus sings Psalm 104, in Biblical Hebrew, offstage afterwards).This is the only part of the text sung in English; the rest is in a mixture of Aramaic, Akkadian and Hebrew. Constanzo’s rendition of the Hymn was stunningly beautiful, the clarity of his voice giving it a childlike sense of wonder. Akhnaten then walks slowly up a staircase in front of a representation of the Aten (above), then turns towards it and reaches out with both arms in an attempt to touch it, but he can’t reach it. He turns to face the audience, a desolate expression on his face, and the curtain falls on Act II.

That moment is so poignant because it spells out the universal nature of Akhnaten’s tragedy. His downfall seems inevitable from that point. He tries, as we all do in one way or another, and at some time or another, to commune with something beyond human existence. Inevitably, he fails, and his obsession costs him not only his kingdom, but also his life.



Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , on May 28, 2012 by telescoper

Last night I went with some friends to the Wales Millennium Centre in sunny Cardiff Bay; not, this time, for an Opera but to see a movie. Well, not just to see a movie but to listen to the soundtrack performed live at the same time. It turned out to be a fascinating and memorable evening, enjoyed by a very large audience.

The film was the classic 1931 version of Bram Stoker’s Draculastarring the great Bela Lugosi as the Count. This version – the first of many variations on the theme – was based very closely on the 1927 Broadway play in which Lugosi also played the title role. The music we heard was specially composed to accompany Dracula by Philip Glass, and the man himself was there to perform it. Philip Glass, I mean, not Count Dracula. The musicians numbered six in total, actually, as Philip Glass was joined by the Kronos Quartet  and together they were directed by Michael Riesman, who sat with his back to the audience watching the film on the big screen.

Although the musicians started a bit ropily, they soon pulled themselves together and it became obvious that the music was going to bring a significant new dimension to this pioneering old horror movie. In fact, as a very early “talkie” the original film had no musical score at all and very few sound effects of any kind. The music composed by Philip Glass brings extra dramatic intensity to some of the movie’s iconic sequences, such as the battle of wills when Dracula tries to mesmerise Professor van Helsing. The insistent repetition which is characteristic of Glass’ minimalist approach adds urgency where needed, but there are also contrasting passages of relaxed beauty. The score is also beautifully understated where it needs to be, simple enough not to distract attention away from the screen.

The passing years have not been particularly kind to the film. The effects are often unconvincing (to say the least), especially the  bats-on-strings, some of the acting very hammy, and the audio quality was so poor that the dialogue was often so muffled as to be barely audible (and not helped by bad mixing with the music).

Once you look past these superficial aspects, however, it’s not difficult to understand why this film is regarded as such a classic, because it is a highly original piece of work. It’s a far cry from a modern gore-fest, of course. The horror is implied rather than made explicit; all the actual blood-sucking happens out of shot. But the unsettlingly disjointed narrative, full of unexpected changes of scene and unexplained goings-on, gives it a dream-like feel and conjures up a unique sense of atmosphere. Although it it is now extremely dated, it doesn’t take that much imagination to understand why it created a sensation way back in 1931, with people apparently fainting in shock in the cinema. It also made a huge amount of money at the box office.

Vampire movies  are replete with their own set of clichés – the crucifixes, the absent reflections, the bats, etc etc – but this is the daddy of them all. The one thing that surprised me was the lack of garlic; the favoured protection against this particular member of the Undead is Wolfsbane (a member of the Aconite family of attractive yet lethally poisonous flowering plants; I used to grow a variety called Monk’s-Hood in my garden when I lived in Nottingham).

In the end, however, Dracula owes it all to the mesmerising screen presence of Bela Lugosi. This film made his name, and he was to spend most of the rest of his career typecast as a horror villain. His later years represented a downward spiral. Trouble with sciatica led doctors to prescribe him with opiates, on which he became hooked.  His drug addiction made him notoriously unreliable and work dried up. His career dwindled away into obscure bit parts in poor quality B-movies.

Although Bela Lugosi had his limitations as an actor, he didn’t deserve his fate. I’ve said before on here that I think people should be judged by their best work rather than by their worst, and so it is with Bela Lugosi. He was, and remains, the  Count Dracula.