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The Philip Glass Trilogy: Akhnaten


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Timothy Sexton, State Opera CEO and conductor of The Philip Glass Trilogy, has pulled off an incredible coup in assembling the talent required to stage this series of outstanding modern operas.

It is a mammoth undertaking and one that places Adelaide very highly nationally and internationally for artistic vision and endeavour.

The Philip Glass operas are not the usual operatic fare: the score repeats themes and melodies, and steadily progresses towards an abrupt end or a subtle development and reinvention of a familiar musical phrase; a dance troupe is in almost perpetual motion throughout the performance and the chorus participates in highly stylised movement.

Although this first work in the trilogy centres around Akhnaten – the Egyptian pharaoh and father of Tutankhamun, who led his people to worship one god, Aten, the sun god – the opera does not tell his story as such but rather presents fragments of his life in a way that highlights human achievement and experience. His love of Nefertiti and admiration of her beauty is expressed through beautiful sounds, with the physical aspect of love realised by two talented dancers; Akhnaten, Nefertiti and their six daughters sing exquisitely a hymn to the sun; a funeral, a coronation and the destruction of a city are depicted without being explored in detail.

Mary Moore’s set and costume design captures elements of the era but is fused with modern costumes and furniture so that actual dates and authenticity are irrelevant.

A large pyramid hangs above elevated steps that provide a suitable and elegant platform for the chorus, and ultimately a large blue triangle, subdivided by panels, wedges between the pyramid, suggesting the new way will replace the old. On stands, papyruses or ancient writings are prominent; they could contain ancient wisdom or be the embodiment of new ideas but they are there to be studied and thought about. Later, the chorus rolls about with scrolls, and Akhnaten and Nefertiti tear pages from books, destroying ancient beliefs about polytheism and distributing new ideas concurrently.

Leigh Warren’s dancers begin the visuals in their dark body suits and they appear to be living hieroglyphics in a modern museum; they dance throughout the performance and the images they create as birds, animals or people often bring alive the lyrics and ideas of the music. The dancers weave their way through the singers and occasionally dance with the cast, who move in a disciplined way as stylised Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Geoff Cobham’s lighting provides godly shafts of light and illuminates the chorus in colours that transform them from people of a city to priests to something more celestial.

The chorus and the Adelaide Art Orchestra are very impressive. Unusually, the lead role is performed by a counter tenor and we are fortunate to have Tobias Cole as Akhnaten. Cole creates a dignity and presence as the pharaoh and his singing, especially with Cherie Boogaart in the love duet, is exceptional. Adam Goodburn is strong, clear and highly focused as the Scribe and High Priest.

State Opera’s Akhnaten is a tremendous achievement and contains many moments of memorable theatricality. It is a total experience. I recommend purchasing a program and reading a little about the scenes before seeing them – this will enable you to savour each moment rather than expecting a linear narrative.

Philip Glass’s music is meditative, contemplative and full of beauty and power. The Philip Glass Trilogy explores the inextricable links between science, religion and politics, and State Opera has presented us with a unique opportunity to experience all three operas within a week, which Philip Glass himself recommended as the way to view his works.

If you are not familiar with his music, take this opportunity to experience his operas; they are very different from what you may perceive opera to be. Sexton, who is not only a master of music but is also a keen student of science, religion and politics, is to be applauded for his vision to stage these works in Adelaide and for his determination and ability to bring a team together to make it happen.

Akhnaten will be presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre again on August 12 and 19. The second work in the trilogy, Einstein on the Beach, is on August 7, 14 and 21, while third work Satyagraha is on August 9, 16 and 23.

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