Egypt in Boston

Notes on a recent production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten by the Boston Lyric Opera and its programming alongside Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Verdi’s Aida

Act II: Review Based on Two Performances of Akhnaten (1/30/2000; 2/1/2000)

  1. The BLO’s production began ingeniously with the opera’s Prelude, which, in particular, focused on the construction of the character of the scribe. The scribe is cast as an archivist carefully recording the historical events of the Armana period. He is seen pacing the stage, occasionally stopping to scribble notes on a handheld tablet. These notes are projected onto the dune-rippled, sand-colored set—a sort of birds-eye view of the desert that at one stage in the production featured an aerial view of the Gaza pyramids. The texts are not translated into English but are renditions of the original stone tablets found at the ruins of Akhetaten, Akhnaten’s holy city. The music and libretto clearly support this interpretation. Just as the archivist carefully sifts through the documents with which he or she works, arranging them meticulously so as to allow them to tell their own "story," so Glass’s music is pieced together fragment by fragment before the listener’s ears. A binary rhythm is transformed into a tertiary with the addition of a single note; strings are introduced in the first cycle of the Prelude, then woodwinds, and then brass. In addition to his ancient Egyptian role, the scribe can be seen as a theatrical representation of Glass and his collaborators, and of the creative process of (re-)constructing the opera from found material. Glass’s and his collaborators’ Foucauldian fascination with the document thus finds its mirror image in the activities of the ancient Egyptian scribe—the only character in the opera that can be said to have a "personality," albeit a mercurial one.

  2. Near the end of the Prelude the scribe tilts his tablet, which turns out to be a mirror, towards the audience in order to direct light around the auditorium. Akhnaten’s doctrine of light thus mediated—or reflected—finds its way into the contemporary world. This becomes an apt metaphor not only for the subject matter of the opera—Akhnaten’s doctrine—but for the aesthetic upon which the opera is based. The material is presented in the form of found texts. But still a scribe is needed to relate the story (or stories) and both the dimensions of the mirror and the material reflected by it are guided by interpretive choices. The same is true of Glass and his relation to his material. The story is incomplete but a story is nonetheless told. The presence of a mirror here brings to mind Lacan's "mirror phase," where the infant first perceives him- or herself as distinct from the surrounding world and, ultimately, the mother, thus entering the domain of the symbolic—just as Glass makes his first self-conscious steps into explicitly narrative structures in the piece.

  3. The funeral scene contains the most overt references to ancient Egyptian iconography, the ancient Egypt we know best—that of the pantheistic "old order." From King of the Underworld Osiris to magical Zeret birds traversing the stage in time to darting, delving woodwind flourishes, this is some of the most powerful music and visual imagery in the opera. Akhnaten’s headless father appears on stage, guided by the pantheon of gods and Glass’s raucous, rancid torrent of sound. Those versed in Freudian theory will have no trouble identifying the psychological subtext to this appearance. This is Akhnaten’s vision of his father—Akhnaten the iconoclast, the father-killer. The original conception of the opera drew extensively on Velikovsky’s controversial theory attributing the origins of the Oedipus legend to events in the life of Akhnaten. And it is precisely in the recurring image of the dead king in each act of the opera, that Oedipus in Akhnaten comes to life. Glass insisted on the inclusion of this imagery in this production, since his instructions, clearly written in the libretto, were disregarded in the first two productions to the detriment of the overall narrative coherence of the piece.

  4. The subsequent scenes gave the term "red carpet treatment" a whole new meaning. Small red mats were lugged relentlessly around the stage by Akhnaten’s servants, flung in front of him as he arrived at any given point, whisked out from under him as he departed. This procedure formed a cycle, which for a while beautifully complemented the cyclical chaconne patterning that is the main foundation for this character’s music. Unfortunately, however, all of this became a little tiresome as the opera progressed, leaving most of the audience as relieved as the young king seemed to be when the mats were eventually discarded after the introduction to the hymn. Clearly some sense of momentum, some rhythmic impetus is needed visually to complement Glass’s whirling, pulsating musical textures—in order to anchor them to the surrounding multimedia environment and to set up a counterpoint between these constantly shifting surface textures and the relatively static (or at least slow moving) harmonic/linear "deep" structures of the music. Unfortunately, this business with the carpets was the closest this production came to providing a dramatic parallel to the bustling, ebullient textures of Glass’s music.

  5. Directors such as Robert Wilson and Achim Freyer have intuitively understood the importance of "keeping things moving" when working with music of this ilk. Mary Zimmerman did not always manage to keep these two elements in balance, all too frequently allowing the bold to become bald and the strikingly or tellingly stark to appear just plain starkers. This was most apparent in Akhnaten’s "Hymn to the Sun" à la Zimmerman. Critic Richard Dyer perceptively pointed out this weakness in his Boston Globe review of this production. As this writer put it, Zimmerman is "better at deconstructing images than creating them" (Dyer 8)." What Dyer refers to as "[s]himmering Glass" (Dyer 1) did not, therefore, translate into visuals. Zimmerman’s hymn did not shimmer. The pulsional discourse of Kristeva's semiotic, present in abundance in the music, was nowhere to be seen as the quietly regal but mostly static figure of Geoffrey Scott delivered the opera’s pivotal text from center-stage. The director was evidently relying on the compelling, budding talent of the young counter-tenor to hold the audience’s attention for the full eight minutes or so of the hymn. However, with little going on dramatically and the backstage choir banished to the wings in this scene, as stipulated in the libretto, this may have been asking too much of any singer. The intention on Zimmerman’s part could have been a kind of Brechtian alienation effect. In this scene Akhnaten communicates with the audience in English, the only time he does so in the opera. Perhaps by stripping things down dramatically, the intention was to provide an opportunity for direct communication, in effect bringing down the fourth wall (presumably this is what Dyer means when he writes of "deconstruction"). This was certainly the case in the Epilogue, which I shall return to in a moment—but if the same was true of the hymn then it was hardly sufficiently indicated dramatically. The high point of the opera—Akhnaten’s dazzling moment of apotheosis—thus fell a little flat.

  6. Arguably the two strongest scenes in the opera, certainly in terms of the operatic voice, are the trio called the "Window of Appearances" (featuring Akhnaten, counter-tenor, Nefertiti, contralto, and Tye, soprano) and the duet (featuring Akhnaten and Nefertiti). Here Glass’s quasi-renaissance counterpoint is some of the strongest writing in the opera. These scenes also offer some of the sexiest and most challenging material from the standpoint of the director. In the scene the "Window of Appearances," Zimmerman opted for self-reflexive "deconstruction" (of theatrical illusion), and here it was called for. In this scene Zimmerman addresses one of her key "interpretive" concerns: to draw attention to the discrepancy between the real Akhnaten (the living flesh and blood man) and the Akhnaten we construct from the artifacts passed down to us from the Armana period of Egyptian history. She also addresses the discrepancy between public and private selves and, in the following texts, draws a parallel between the story of Akhnaten and the fragmentary narratives constituted by the artifacts relating to our own lives. Zimmerman writes:

    For me, Akhnaten the historical person, and Akhnaten the opera have become emblematic also of the discrepancy between the experience of a life and the recorded memory of a life. What part of us will remain, and what will go, when we go, into black granite? We leave behind that which is public and recorded: in Akhnaten’s life a coronation, a plan for an eternal city and a funeral; in ours, an address, a few dates of births and weddings, and perhaps a death. But these public or historic records provide only the faintest outline of a guide to our lives, and are often far distant from our private experiences, about which they communicate nothing. (Zimmerman 23)

  7. The Window of Appearances, then, becomes a family photograph. A life-size picture frame descends from the flies behind which the three protagonists stand. Different levels of reality and illusion become superimposed onto one another as the singing begins: public/private, historical/contemporary, theatrical illusion/everyday life. And in the midst of this confusion the voices of the three protagonists confuse issues further. The intertwining voices of Akhnaten and Nefertiti, counter-tenor and contralto, both occupying the same vocal range, and Tye and Nefertiti, the former of which is cast with the voice that should rightly belong to the latter (romantic leading ladies are usually sopranos). Towards the end of the scene, the protagonists turn their backs to the audience and gaze with them into the now empty picture frame. Here once again echoes of Brecht are perceptible.

  8. Brechtian distancing arguably becomes a more pressing concern as the opera approaches its conclusion, or in-conclusion. And perhaps this is when it is needed most; when the primary directives of narrative form guide the viewer/listener most powerfully towards a resolution that can easily take on the appearance of necessity. In the scene depicting the ransacking of Akhnaten’s temple to the sun god, a Wilsonesque touch is added by having an upside-down Perspex pyramid drop down from flies. When Akhnaten’s torch-lit adversaries (visually, a cross between Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and David Lynch) assume control of the temple, the ultimate adversary is revealed to be time itself as the pyramid becomes an hourglass dropping sand onto a glass-encased model of the temple. This not only is an accurate representation of what happened—Akhnaten’s holy city was buried under sand for more that three millennia—it also brings to the foreground the artifactual foundations of theatre itself, the very theatrical artifice the model of the theatre is part and parcel of.

  9. Brecht, or the elusive yet ever-present non-representational stratum of theatrical experience so much of the contemporary theatre has sought to invoke, becomes an almost embarrassingly obvious presence in the epilogue. Here tourists are seen perusing the ruins of Akhnaten’s holy city. In the BLO production these took the form of a handful of garishly-attired, camcorder-wielding North Americans. Towards the end of the scene a young boy breaks off from group and is seen defiling the ruins with a spray can. "I was here," he writes; a motto that no sooner than it is written is adopted by the ghost of Akhnaten, who appears on the stage, eventually scaring the child away from the ruins. As the diegesis shifts in time from the Armana age to the present day, the temporal transition is negotiated theatrically by having the entire flying apparatus—bars, chains and all—descend into view. These come to rest at approximately knee height, about the height of the real Armana ruins. When discussing previous solutions to the problems raised by this scene, I considered the possibility of interpreting Glass’s attempt at "historification" in post-Brechtian terms. Glass’s intention was "to somehow underscore the fact that although we twentieth-century people were looking at an imaginary version of Egypt in 1400BC, the very ruins of that Egypt exist today. Therefore I decided to create an epilogue set in the present" (Glass, Music 154-55). But in order to really convince us that we have returned to the present, I thought Glass, or the directors of future productions, should go further than previously:

    Ostensibly a Brechtian strategy, the return to the present day at the end of the opera in fact adds a second diegetic stratum to its "rock formation": that of the "mythologized" contemporary. The text read by the scribe may be archaeological in the Foucauldian sense, but the tourists must be re-presented; real tourists cannot magically materialize on the stage for each performance of the opera—unless of course a video installment or some similar means of presentation is utilized. In order to fully realize the post-Brechtian potential of this moment, then—to properly ground the opera in the non-diegetic present—a strategy such as this might be called for. (Richardson 239)

    Zimmerman evidently heeded these words or was thinking along similar lines. But whether her interpretation is convincing is finally in the hands of the individuals watching this specific production. A proportion of these may well have been savvy with respect to recent theatrical techniques, but perhaps these people were not the intended addressees. Perhaps knowledge of theatrical convention deprives the moment of its full rhetorical clout. To a more knowledgeable audience, Zimmerman’s solution may have appeared a little hackneyed. I myself applauded the director’s awareness of the issues raised by the composer in this scene. And for some it did appear to have the intended effect; an elderly lady sitting behind me at one of the performances audibly gasped as the stage was stripped bare. However, even the epilogue did not appear to be enough to shake the impression of an overriding realism; as I was walking out of the theatre on the same night, I overheard one season ticket holder tell another how she was "transported to Egypt in all but body."

  10. In a sense, it is possible to understand these remarks. Much of the iconography of the BLO production drew extensively on relics from the Amarna period. And many in the audience would have been familiar with the source materials, since performances of Akhnaten coincided with an exhibit put on at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston called "Pharaohs of the Sun." This exhibit was the largest collection of artifacts from Akhnaten’s holy city ever gathered together under a single roof. Back projections, stage sets, dance steps, and costumes in the BLO production were all to some extent modeled on images from the exhibit. A nice touch that certainly complemented Glass’s and his co-librettist's wholesale dragging of archaeological artifacts into the libretto. But the transportation of the audience into the interior world of the work went beyond the archaeological, thus setting up a dualism between presentational and representational strata. The scribe, played by Christopher Donohue, clearly "acted" in a part that according to Dryer "requires more authoritative oratory" (Dyer D8), dance movements were lyrical and expressive, and the lovers in the duet were clearly in love. Thus realism on one plane came up against antirealism on another, resulting in some degree of aesthetic confusion.

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Volume 2 Issue 2


Susan McClary:
Temporality and Ideology

Fink, Garofalo, Gebhardt,
and Partovi:

Music as Object?
A Napster Roundtable



Magical Urbanism

The Art of Piano

Review Essays

Experience Music Project

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