Monday 14 March 2016

Akhnaten at ENO, or, Philip Glass's Operatic Limitations Repeated

I went to this performance purely for completionist reasons as it was of an opera that I had not previously seen. Having endured three previous attempts at the genre by Philip Glass my hopes were not high (you can read my thoughts on the Barbican Einstein on the Beach and ENO's Satyagraha). This is not as interminable as Satyagraha, but it is not great opera.

The problem on this occasion is with the work itself. I concur with others who have argued that Glass uses more orchestral colour here (particularly brass) than in other works of his I've heard. He also seemed to me more willing to allow for fleeting melody. This can't finally transcend the basic limiting character of Glass's repetitions – this is music that dramatically to my mind either goes nowhere or goes to the same place over and over again with diminishing effect – but it does make them more bearable. Influences of greater composers also seemed more evident here than in other Glass operas – Wagner for example (the programme note cites Purcell) with the overall unfortunate effect that his weaknesses against their greatness are the more exposed. All that said the approach does work better here than in Satyagraha, because the subject matter lends itself to this kind of style more readily – particularly in the heavily ritualised Act One.

The next isssue with Glass is that here, as in Satyagraha, he doesn't seem to think the text matters. Once again there are no surtitles, rendering those sections not sung in English incomprehensible (and the diction plus the vocal writing of sections in English means that few words are much better off there). In my opinion, opera achieves its greatest impact when text and music are in the closest harmony – the one reinforcing the other to develop character, to create deep emotional feeling. By rejecting that principle Glass hamstrings his work from the outset. If he was prepared simply to stick to spectacle (and got rid of the text altogether) this might not be such a problem – though I think it would still seriously diminish the work as opera. But Glass will not do this either. The synopsis is at pains to insist that a significant confrontation of ideas (that between monotheism and polytheism) is at stake in this work. If you did not read the synopsis, however, I rather doubt that you would know that this was what was supposed to be going on. The text as already established is no help at all, the staging not much more so. What is left is spectacle and, as I said after Satyagraha, that can carry you only so far. One other new, for Glass, element, requires noting – the addition of a spoken role delivered boomingly by (I think – who people are in this show is not always that clear) Zachary James's Scribe. I assume he was directed to deliver every line in pretty much the same manner, and the biblical-style text is not well crafted for dramatic punch (the decision as to where to build the city in Act Two is a particularly egregious example of this) but whoever is responsible the overall effect is one of tedium. It is very difficult to make spoken word work in the context of opera (the only instance I can really think of where it possesses real impact is Britten's Paul Bunyan) and Glass does not make it work here.

The production, as noted, goes some way to mitigate the work's flaws. The style will be familiar to anyone who has seen one of the other Glass operas staged in recent years in London. It is, thankfully, not as busy as Phelim McDermott's Satyagraha for ENO. It borrows the same habit that everybody must move terribly slowly (which rather hinders meaningful interaction between characters). The visual imagery overall though is more effective here than in the previous work – I think, as I said before, because the strong ritual element here is a better fit with Glass's musical style than the world of Gandhi was. But the staging can't finally find dramatic tension or emotional depth when the work essentially has neither. McDermott's main addition compared to his Satyagraha is a troop of jugglers – performed by Gandini Juggling. They do lots of impressive work (though they are less present than other reviews might lead you to imagine). But it is difficult after a while to avoid the feeling that they are there juggling to attempt to distract from the show's dramatic inertness. And there is a particular problem with the idea of jugglers as some sort of military force for royalty – why, one wonders, are the priests of the old ways allowing themselves to be driven out of the temple by such people? In the end I felt a little as I did about Iestyn Davies's singing in the disappointing Farinelli and the King – that I would have got as much enjoyment of the juggling as juggling from a Gandini Juggling show on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Musically, standards are high. There are fine performances from Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten), Emma Carrington (Nefertiti), Rebecca Bottone (Tye) and the supporting cast. The ENO Chorus and Orchestra are on strong form, and on the podium Karen Kamensek does her best to keep the score moving along and to give it what drama is possible. But they are sadly in the service of inferior work – strong performances in themselves can't supply the emotional weight or depth of character which the work inherently lacks.

The Upper Circle looked pretty nearly sold out for this performance. My companion (less of an operagoer than me) enjoyed it much more than I did. Past Glass at ENO suggests it does attract a different audience to the company's regulars. Given ENO's present dire (but essentially self-inflicted) state the commercial success of this production is clearly a good thing. This show is a mostly impressive spectacle with finely performed musical accompaniment. But that is not the same thing as great opera and the latter, in my opinion, is what ENO should be there for and what it has, far too often in the last decade or so, failed to achieve. This particular show cannot be classed a failure, but the nature of its success speaks volumes.

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