Los Angeles Opera Preview: AKHNATEN (LA Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on November 4, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten was not just provocative in his lifetime. Today, over three millennia after his reign, Egyptologists still debate theories about his life and relative importance. After his death, succeeding Pharaohs did their best to erase every trace of the man who had dared to displace the many gods of Egypt and create the first monotheistic religion in recorded history. Sure, one man’s ideas can change the course of history, but at what cost?

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Philip Glass may be an acknowledged master today but when his opera Akhnaten premiered in 1984 he was still the “bad boy” of Minimalism who had dared to invade the world’s opera houses. Akhnaten, which LA Opera opens this Saturday November 5, 2016, in an exciting new production, is the third part of the so-called “portrait” trilogy of Glass’s operas, each of which tackles the subject of a historical individual whose ideas changed the world.

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First, there was Einstein (the astounding Einstein on the Beach, 1976), Gandhi (Satyagraha, 1980) and finally the eponymous Egyptian Pharaoh in Akhnaten (1984), which has a powerful, mesmerizing score filled with driving rhythms and exquisite choral harmonies. All three of these original productions broadened the scope of what could be considered operatic, and their staging and theatrical innovation revolutionized the way music drama is performed.

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By any definition Akhnaten was an idiosyncratic figure, so Glass and his three co-librettists chose to honor this with a deliberately unconventional opera. The libretto was crafted from existing letters and documents sung in their original languages—the individual scenes set by a Scribe who introduces the action in the language of the audience. Action is probably a misnomer here.

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The aim was to create a series of fragmentary tableaux from the Pharaoh’s life rather than to construct a coherent narrative. The result is a progression of non-dramatic episodes as inflexible and stylized as an Egyptian wall painting. Glass also conceived Akhnaten as a countertenor, a choice far less unique today than when the opera was composed.

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LA Opera, which brought us the extraordinary original staging of Einstein on the Beach, offers an all-new staging by renowned director Phelim McDermott in a co-production with English National Opera, where it was presented and extremely well-received earlier this year. This ia a behemoth and gorgeous production, as you can see by the photos. It runs for 6 performances only, and it will be conducted by the company’s new Artist in Residence, Matthew Aucoin, who makes his mainstage conducting debut leading this astonishing work. (Aucoin will also be leading the pre-show talks—free for ticketholders—one hour prior to curtain.)

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Fast-rising countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, the 2012 first-place winner of Operalia, makes his LA Opera debut in a role he first performed at English National Opera earlier this year. Also making her LA Opera debut is mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who performs the role of Nefertiti, Akhnaten’s bride. Soprano Stacey Tappan, whose many LAO appearances include, memorably, Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (2014), appears as Queen Tye, the pharoah’s mother.

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photos by Craig T. Mathew


LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave
Saturday, November 5, 2016, at 7:30
Thursday, November 10, 2016 at 7:30
Sunday, November 13, 2016 at 2
Thursday, November 17, 2016, at 7:30
Saturday, November 19, 2016, at 7:30
Sunday, November 27, 2016, at 2

for tickets, call 213.972.8001 or visit LA Opera

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