Genius-level minimalist composer Philip Glass wrote a trilogy of operas in the early '80s about men who changed the world with the power of their ideas and vision: Einstein on the Beach focused on a man of science; Satyagraha centered on Gandhi, the man of politics. Both figures are well-known. Glass' third subject, the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, rings way fewer bells, no doubt because the poor guy got shoved to the side on account of far more famous (and glamorous) relatives Tutankhamun and Nefertiti.
But Akhnaten had enough things going on to merit his own post-modern opera. He is credited with the temporary introduction of monotheism in his realm to replace traditional Egyptian polytheism. This innovation proved disastrous for him politically and personally: The polygod hardliners assassinated him. Glass' Akhnaten has religion as its ostensible theme, with a libretto taken from the decrees, letters and fragments of poems from the doomed Pharaoh's era. The composer insisted that they be sung in their original languages (Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew) to emphasize an “artifactual” presentation as might be gleaned from viewing exhibits in a museum. The very sound of the original tongues (a narrator provides an English translation) is central to the power of Glass' stately, elegant and, yes, very repetitive orchestral score. But the music's deliberately limited tonality works to mesmerizing effect when paired with an over-the-top staging.
That should be no problem for the Long Beach Opera, our bold local treasure whose forte is the spectacular and strange.
Akhnaten has its West Coast premiere Sat., March 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach. Also Sun., March 27, 2 p.m.
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