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Shatterproof Egyptian Glass

By Bence Olveczky

Staff Writer

The person largely responsible for making Boston’s much-anticipated Egyptian Season such a success is the 3,600 year-old Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten. For the last few months the Museum of Fine Arts has been displaying an impressive collection of artifacts from his reign in its blockbuster exhibition “Pharaohs of the Sun,” and two weeks ago the Boston Lyric Opera delighted its audiences by premiering Mary Zimmerman’s beautiful production of Philip Glass’s biographical opera Akhnaten.

Akhnaten isn’t your normal Pharaoh. The enigmatic ruler not only introduced the once-revolutionary concepts of monotheism and monogamy to the world, but he also had the integrity and courage to challenge the Egyptian establishment by championing new forms of artistic expression. But while the known facts about Akhnaten are impressive, it is what we don’t know that makes his character so fascinating. Akhnaten’s modern appeal stems from our quest to understand his visionary ideas, his beliefs, and his motivations, and to interpret them for our times.

Sadly, Glass’s opera doesn’t explore or question this pioneer’s intellectual legacy. Librettist Shalom Goldman’s rendering of Akhnaten’s life is disappointingly stale, leaving it to the music and the visual imagery to save the opera. Thankfully the BLO production, helmed by the award-winning director Mary Zimmerman and conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, has all the necessary ingredients to make Akhnaten an uplifting and pleasant experience.

After having portrayed Einstein and Gandhi in his previous portrait-operas (Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha respectively), Philip Glass chose the mysterious Egyptian Pharaoh to conclude his trilogy about prophetic personalities. Glass, one of today’s most influential composers, was inspired by Akhnaten’s rebellious attitude and his individualistic approach to art and religion. Indeed, he may even have discovered a certain kinship to the Pharaoh. For decades, Glass has himself challenged the status quo in classical music by incessantly transforming it from a highly antiquarian endeavor into something vibrant and colorful.

Thus it’s no surprise that Akhnaten is completely devoid of the sugar-coated arias encountered in the classical operas of Puccini and Verdi. The musical pattern is Glassian to a fault with its hypnotic repetitions of motoric rhythms, a technique successfully borrowed from classical Indian music. Glass’ major strength is his ability to create monumental and mesmerizing compositions from simple building blocks -- a trademark quality that has earned him the minimalist label.

Unfortunately, Glass’s talents don’t cross the border into storytelling, and Akhnaten suffers from a lack of narrative. The opera is a series of staged rituals illustrating fragments of Akhnaten’s life: his father’s funeral, his crowning, his marriage to Nefertiti and his ultimate demise at the hands of the traditionalist priests. The text, sung in English, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Akkadian (an old Semitic language), is loaded with cryptic associations, obvious symbolism, and “deeper” meanings that come across as banal rather than profound.

It is the orchestra that dominates Glass’s score, and the BLO musicians do a remarkably polished job, with the string section (without violins) giving the sound a deep and dark quality. As with most Glass operas, the choir is used as an instrument, and their utterances are performed with grace and precision. In Akhnaten, being more of a choral composition, the soloists aren’t as crucial as they would be to a traditional opera, but Geoffrey Scott deserves praise for his rendering of the Pharaoh. Scott, a 24 year old student at the New England Conservatory, was promoted from understudy to the title role only weeks before the premiere and sung the part well, although he failed to give his character the aura of a mythical figure.

To succeed with his avant-garde operas Glass has traditionally allied himself with very visual theater directors (most notably Robert Wilson), and the BLO production is no exception. In Mary Zimmerman, Glass found a worthy interpreter of his music. Zimmerman, known to the Boston audience through her work with the Huntington Theatre where she directed the imaginative Journey to the West and last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is also the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious Genius Award.

Zimmerman maintains her prestigious reputation with the help of another Boston regular, set designer Scott Bradley, who is emerging as one of the most interesting artists in American theater. He designed the imaginative stage set for American Repertory Theatre’s Ivanov, and he came up with many striking visual images for Akhnaten as well. It is Bradley’s poetic imagery, hovering between the stylized and the abstract, that makes the Boston production stand out. Unfortunately Bradley’s sparse and subtle stage set is somewhat antagonized by costume designer Mara Blumenfeld’s excesses. Her eclectic mix of everything eastern would suit a Gilbert and Sullivan musical very well, but is rather out of place in Glass’s minimalist opera.

But all is well that ends well, and in Akhnaten the ending is indeed climactic. The second act slowly gathers momentum and builds up to the grand finale in which the Pharaoh is confronted by the high priests and faced with a revolt he can’t contain. The final scene, unexpected and humorous, takes place in the present. A rather obnoxious group of American tourists are visiting the ruins of Ikhtaton, Akhnaten’s citadel of learning, art, and beauty. Their coarseness is in stark contrast to the refined and enlightened message once heralded by Akhnaten, and it leaves us to ponder whether 3600 years of cultural evolution has really been to our benefit.

Boston’s Egyptian Season continues with the Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in late March and Boston Ballet’s Cleopatra in May.