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Feast For the Eyes, Famine For the Ears

Akhnaten, Chicago Opera Theater at the Athenaeum Theatre

Opera review, July 28, 2000

I've never understood why Philip Glass started writing operas. It's a specialized and highly demanding art form that few people have ever done well. Not only do you need a finely developed instinct for blending music and drama, but you need to have mastered all kinds of subtle varieties of melody, harmony, and orchestration--how else are you going to keep an audience in their seats for three hours? Yet Glass has never shown the slightest interest in any form of drama or nuance. His trademark style, so familiar from movie sound tracks and TV commercials, depends on the simplest building blocks of composition being laid out in the most monotonously exact patterns--as though early on in his career he'd worked out the introductory exercises in a music textbook and then decided he was set for life.

His Akhnaten, now getting an elaborate new production at the Chicago Opera Theater, is typical of his operatic work. It displays no essential difference in technique from his chamber pieces or his film scores. There's just more of it: an evening's worth of that famous Glassian staccato pulse, the bell-like percussive strings and keyboards, and the robotic brass fanfares, alternating between half speed and full tilt, piano and fortissimo--on and on with no variety, spontaneity, or point. I know people who like it--hell, the crowd at the Athenaeum Theatre actually cheered when Glass came out onstage at the end. But to me it's the musical equivalent of being trapped in a bell jar while all the air's sucked out.

To be fair, Akhnaten is in some ways more extreme than the average Glass product. For one thing, the mood is a little odder. Usually when he sets out to create atmosphere the results are interchangeable: his score for Martin Scorsese's Kundun, which is about Tibet, sounds exactly like his score for Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, which is about Texas. But the setting of Akhnaten is ancient Egypt--which turns out to sound like Mars. It's kind of an impressive effect. The icy, droning, cyclical repetition of his rudimentary themes creates a palpable feeling of ancient ritual; this is an Egypt wholly defined by inscrutable traditions, the meaning of which can only be guessed at by dim and misleading analogy.

The libretto amplifies this feeling by deliberately making the plot incomprehensible. The action is staged as a series of elaborately formalized tableaux, from which you can get the general drift: Akhnaten is crowned pharaoh, he throws the old-guard priests out of the temple, they lead a counterrevolution, Akhnaten is dragged offstage and presumably killed. But the specifics are wholly mysterious. According to the program, the historical Akhnaten was an early monotheist opposed to Egypt's ancient heritage of polytheism--well, OK, maybe. But the bulk of the libretto consists of period texts in Egyptian, Akkadian, and Hebrew, almost all of which are left untranslated (there are also scenes where everybody chants "Ha! Ha! Ha!" for minutes at a time), so you won't be able to figure out why the priests had him whacked unless you're a professor of Near Eastern languages.

It might not matter if you could get the hang of what's going on with our hero. But Akhnaten is a blank moving through a void. We get a few scattered clues as to what he might be thinking, but it's impossible to add them up to a whole. In the first act he makes a great show of being haughty and regal--he expels the priests with a hand imperiously pointed to the exit, like a villainous landlord in a Charlie Chaplin movie. But when the priests start their revolt in the second act, he's shown shrugging off the news and cuddling up blissfully with his children, in a tableau as tender as a fabric-softener commercial. Is that the kind of behavior we want in a pharaoh? I'm not sure. I can't rest easy about his personal life either. Even after close study of the program I wasn't rock solid on who was his wife and who his mother, since he treated both characters exactly alike. Clearly he has some heavy-duty unresolved issues with women--maybe instead of a revolt, the priests should have gone with a special prosecutor.

Akhnaten's general air of sleepwalking oddity is intensified by Glass's most peculiar creative decision--to write the part for a countertenor, which is almost like writing it for a castrato. In almost every scene Akhnaten is required to pipe up higher than anybody else onstage, male or female. If nothing else, this ensures that he comes off as a freakish outsider even in this unfathomably weird society--this may be another planet, but he's from another galaxy.

So how are we supposed to connect with his story? We're not. Glass's works are famous for their emotional reticence: the most tangible mood they ever seem to muster is a remote inhuman melancholy, like an elegy for an android by an android. But Akhnaten goes even further to proclaim its ultimate unreadability. In the last scene we flash forward to the present day, and the mood of remote reverie is shattered by a crowd of loutish American tourists who wander in to inspect the ruins of Akhnaten's legendary city--stooges for the audience who can only stare uncomprehendingly at these relics of an inscrutable past. This startling moment--in fact, the only genuine emotional outburst in anything Glass has written--is still wholly characteristic: the message is that you don't get it and shouldn't even try.

Maybe people find this frostiness restful. I think it plays like a bad parody of contemporary critical theory, where texts exist only to demonstrate their own unmeaning and their highest virtue is to affirm the untranslatably superior otherness of non-Western culture. Call me an old-fashioned, unreconstructed imperialist, but my response to an entire evening of this fashionable posturing is visceral and unpleasant. I happened to be sitting in the row behind Glass at the opening-night performance, and by the final curtain all I wanted to do was whack him on the head with my program to see if he'd blow his cool.

He was spared that, but only because I was mesmerized by the COT's production, which is a splendid piece of eye candy. This is the first time our local theatrical hotshot Mary Zimmerman has directed an opera, and I can't remember the last opera I've seen staged with such imagination. It's a textbook demonstration of how to make something out of nothing--and I'm not just talking about Glass's opera. The COT has a minuscule budget, at least compared to the spendthrift Lyric, and the Athenaeum Theatre is a creaking old hulk--but the dominant effect is one of dreamlike opulence.

Zimmerman fills the stage with swirls of gorgeous color and acrobatic movement. People and props behave as though they're under a sorcerer's spell: an enormous gauzy curtain hangs over the stage during the overture, mysteriously rippling and billowing in time to the music, and in the last act an immense hourglass runs out of sand at the supernaturally exact instant the orchestra falls silent. The sheer ingenuity of the imagery washes out the residual plot. Sometimes you'd swear that what's at issue is a clash of fashion statements--compared to Akhnaten's white and pastel, the stark black and gold of the priests' robes is just too painfully last dynasty. And then there's the objet d'art that's supposed to represent our hero's one-God theory: I think it's supposed to resemble a cross between the ark of the covenant and a scale model of the Parthenon, but it just looks like a Mesopotamian end table.

But most of Zimmerman's ideas are dazzlers. When early on Akhnaten sits to watch a procession of Egyptian gods and monsters through the "Window of Appearances" (a simple picture frame) the effect is vertiginous; you seem to be glimpsing unimaginable vistas of past time. Even better is the gimmick of having the main characters swarmed by teams of slaves ceaselessly laying down trails of cushions, providing water bowls for ritual washing, offering and removing towels, sheets, ornaments, robes--every action seems to generate a fantastically complicated gymnastic routine that has to be executed with clockwork precision by an army of exhaustively drilled slaves. The effect is both hallucinatory and illuminating: the sheer number of people acting in concert that's required to get anything done says worlds about how harmonious this society is, how massively inefficient, and how coercive.

Zimmerman doesn't have the same luck with Akhnaten himself. It can't have been easy to find a singer who has both the required range and enough stage presence to be a persuasive pharaoh, so I suppose it's something that Geoffrey Scott has made any kind of positive impression in the role. I've never heard him before, and since I gather he has got some good reviews, perhaps I saw him on an off night. I thought he was simply out of his depth. He struggled vocally in every scene, and during his showpiece aria in the second act--the only one he sings in English--his voice was strained, thick, and unintelligible. Worse was his performance, which at times is absurdly camped up--in the later scenes he's like a drag queen channeling Marilyn Monroe. I don't know if this was his idea or Zimmerman's (she's often been criticized for the peculiar performances she tolerates from actors), but it's a bad mistake; it ensures that the whole opera comes off as a smug postmodern joke.

The other singers were OK. Wilbur Pauley, playing somebody called Aye, has a fine voice and a fascinating and eccentric stage presence, and I hope I get to see him in something else. The strongest positive impression is made by the narrator, Christopher Donahue, since he's the only one who speaks English (the narration isn't as useful as you might hope); I wouldn't say he created a character, but he hurls himself through his part with so much energy you're glad to see him show up in lots of scenes. The lighting and design and choreography are all impeccable. The orchestra, led by Beatrice Jona Affron, plays with impressive fervor, though since Glass's music is designed to leave no margin whatever for interpretation, it sounds absolutely identical in performance and on recordings. So why not just play the CD over the loudspeakers and save the cost of an orchestra? Maybe it was a union thing.

Versions of that question hang over the whole production: Why bother? If you want to do an opera about Egypt, why not just put on Verdi's Aida? The comparison is inevitable--the whole evening I was kicking myself for not smuggling in a Walkman and surreptitiously soothing myself with Aida. OK, nobody's going to call Verdi a trailblazer for postmodernism. But so what? Think of the hymn to Isis, or the garden scene, or the doomed lovers' farewell to life. Think of Verdi's invincible assurance that he would find in ancient Egypt what he found everywhere: men and women worthy to be admired, glorified, and cherished. Then compare that with the pallid remoteness Glass offers up and ask yourself, who's the tourist?