Last weekend's production of American minimalist composer Philip Glass's Akhnaten was a huge undertaking, and proved a huge achievement for everyone involved. Good on IU Opera Theater for making the bold choice to perform an opera only 30 years on, and on Indianapolis Opera for presenting the production to local audiences. Let's hope this isn't just a one-time collaboration.
For those who didn't catch our cover story last week, the Pharaoh Akhnaten was something of a world-changer: He may have been the first monotheist, and he was certainly one of the first kings who drew within himself and styled himself a philosopher, with little concern for conquering or pillaging or other all-too-human activities.
Following a prelude featuring projected images from the Arab Spring, we began to see the lush, realistic vision that set designer Douglas Fitch and stage director Candace Evans had for the opera. Absent were stereotypical pyramids and hieroglyphics; in their stead were simple, monumental sets and warm, vibrant ceremonial costumes, all glowing gold and luscious turquoises, made by costume designer Linda Pisano.
The land's three rivals to Akhnaten's power (Keith Schwartz, Jacob Williams, Zachary Coates) were featured during the early scenes, singing a trio above the choir at times, with voices of rich depth and intensity. Akhnaten enters when crowned Pharoah; he (countertenor Brennan Hall), his wife Nefertiti (mezzo soprano Laura Thoreson) and his mother Queen Tye (soprano Shannon Love) sing a hymn of acceptance, with Hall singing much like he carried himself about on stage, gracefully, yet with enigmatical, perhaps capricious, power. Thoreson's elegant, alluring voice complemented Hall's countertenor, while Love's voice was remarkably radiant. One more highlight worth noting: a sublime, touching setting of Psalm 104, performed by the chorus lined up in the aisles of the hall.
Glass's writing is at turns monotonous and hypnotic; however, he throws in little variations and an extra note to a theme here and there, which can throw off a musician as easily as it might revive or renew the interest of a listener. The IU Concert Orchestra played with skill and concentration; conductor Arthur Fagen did an excellent job of leading them through tough orchestral waters.