Tuesday, November 26, 2019

We Go to the Opera

Akhnaten approaches his god, the sun (a promotional photo for the opera AKHNATEN)
We are not opera fans. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever been to an opera (well, excepting some Gilbert and Sullivan stuff). Yet, yesterday we went to the opera. And not just any opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (the one in the USA). Well, we weren’t there physically, but we took advantage of the Met’s HD Live program, where performances from the Met are simultaneously telecast at theaters in some 70 countries around the world.

We saw AKHNATEN, by Philip Glass, the story of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh who established a monotheistic religion worshiping only his sun god. The story did not end well: Akhnaten died at an early age and the city he built was destroyed. His son, Tutankhamun, reverted to the old religion (and got a lot more press than his father).

The performance was remarkable for several reasons. The technology—and concept—of simultaneous telecast is amazing. The opera house in New York was packed, and while that audience was watching it live we were watching it on a huge screen in Montpellier, France. Our friend Karla was watching it in Oaxaca, Mexico, and friends of Debra, another ex-pat American sitting with us, were watching it in Salt Lake City, UT. Tens of thousands of people around the world were watching the exact same performance, at the exact same time.

But what I’m really having trouble getting my head around is the performance itself. It was stunning. Surreal, incomprehensible; as unimaginable as it was imaginative. I often saw no sense in the actions on the screen; all I could do was stare and let the powerful images flood through me. The costumes were overwhelming; Akhnaten’s robes were golden, and covered with tiny doll faces with jewels for eyes (?).

During an intermission interview the designer talks about Akhnaten's costume. (these are photos of the screen in the theater)
Every aspect of the performance aided the sense of unreality: the rhythmic and hypnotic music of Philip Glass; the slow, effortless movements of the performers; the voice of Akhnaten, sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo. He sings in a register (countertenor) I’ve never heard before, high but not falsetto, maybe something like a castrato (although there’s not so many of those around these days). His co-star, J'Nai Bridges, playing his wife Nefertiti, sang in a different, lower register, making for some interesting and mind-spinning duets.

And… juggling. Really? Every member of the chorus held a ball or three, and most scenes were punctuated with balls flying in the air. The juggling clubs were particularly effective in the battle scenes, where they doubled as, er, bows and arrows? (I'll note here that during the intermission it was pointed out that jugglers did appear on some Egyptian tombs.) The whole three hours flew by in a flood of emotion-stirring audible and visual imagery that made sense to me only in retrospect.

WTF...? I think these three, backstage for an interview during intermission, represent the priests, the military, and--the guy with the skull glued to his top hat--economic interests.
Each of the performers’ movements was calibrated and precise. Nothing happened quickly; everything flowed slowly, yet powerfully, like lava. Everything was in slow motion. The pinnacle for me was at the end of the second act: Akhnaten mounted the stairs of the temple to approach his god, glacial step by glacial step, to finally stand embraced and engulfed by the massive golden orb of the sun. We were not just speechless, but totally emptied.

One scene from the third act (there's a lot going on!)
Close up of the stage, also during the third act

The three of us left the theater in an altered state. It was as if in a dream we mounted the tram and rode back in the dark, under the rain. We rarely go to this part of town, and we almost never ride the tram at night, adding to the sense of unreality. I was happy for the clang of the iron gate of our apartment building behind us, and the familiarity of the trek up the four flights of stairs to our comforting apartment.

The next day, Sunday, we were curiously reluctant to let go of the sense of unreality we had achieved the night before. We just did not want to let go of that powerful, surreal, ethereal alternative we had been drawn into…

Try this link for a trailer of the televised opera ...

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