Philip Glass Akhnaten with the ENO, at the Coliseum, London, in a new production directed by Phelim McDermott, who created the extraordinary Glass Satyagraha, one of ENO's great hits, regularly revived. Akhnaten is even better known than Satyagraha, and has received many productions over the years, so if this one succeeds, it will be a good thing.
Akhnaten, is part of a trilogy about conceptual ideas,: it's more than narrative entertainment, and needs to be assessed from that perspective. What's scary about conceptual thinking?
All three operas deal with the minds of men (and women) who changed the way we think to a degree : In Einstein on the Beach (read my review HERE and Why I defend Bianca Jagger HERE) Glass dealt with Einstein, an ordinary man whose ideas made him a celebrity even though most didn't really understand what he was doing. In Satyagraha, Glass showed how Gandhi scrapped pamphleteering for direct action. Read my numerous pieces on Satyaghara HERE and HERE. In Akhnaten, Glass picked the one Pharoah in millennia who tried to substitute a single, unitary God for a complex of mythological entities.
Akhnaten is possibly the strongest, musically, of the whole trilogy. The texts are sung in Eygptian, Hebrew and Akkadian without English translations for a very good reason. Akhnaten believed in an abstract God who couldn't be defined in narrow terms. As we listen to the incantations in languages we don't understand we respond as an abstract experience. Anyone who grew up with the Latin Mass shouldn't have any problem connecting spirituality with mystery. As Gandhi discovered, there are ideas that go beyond words.
Hence the importance of listening . Sure, the repetitions can be soporific. When Glass is opaque, eg the awful The Perfect American (read my review HERE) he can be mind-numbingly dull. But when Glass connects form to meaning, as in In the Penal Colony, he can produce taut works of near genius. Read my pieces on In the Penal Colony HERE and HERE. Listen to that audio CD of In the Penal Colony to appreciate how the music itself tells the story, drilling itself painfully into your subconscious, just as the infernal machine drills itself into its victim. It's not easy listening, but when you focus, you can hear the myriad, tiny, changes of inflection and colour. At least in a Phelim McDermott production, there's lots to look at.
Thus to Akhnaten as music. There are long stretches where no-one sings anything at all. But once again, listen attentively. It's almost a piano concerto in that a piano weaves through the orchestral textures, sometimes assertively, sometimes concealed. It is the voice of purity, the voice of a young Pharoah who believes in a single God of Faith while multiple godheads chatter around him, often with menace. Hence the use of counter tenor, a voice type at once vulnerable and assertive. Akhnaten gets wiped from history, but his basic idea applies in other systems of belief. Are human beings programmed to prefer graven images and idols When Nabucco was done at the Royal Opera House, |(my reviews here and here) there were many in the audience who were enraged because the set was so abstract and so austere. Surely some of the booing mob might have realized that the Hebrews worshipped an invisible God and rejected graven images, however golden? Verdi knew. He'd read the Bible and respected Judaism. Nabucco is also a subtle dig at religions that verge on idolatory. Hopefully, when this Nabucco is revived later this season, audiences will appreciate it better.
Please see also the ENO chorus and the death of 1000 cuts plus numerous other posts i've written on the ENO crisis and on British arts policy (or the lack thereof)