Yet again Adelaide positions itself as a national, indeed international leader in operatic daring and innovation: not just one, but three works by Philip Glass, in three week-long cycles. The three operas – Einstein on the Beach (1975), Satyagraha (1979), Akhnaten (1983) are collectively known as the “portrait trilogy”, and it seems this is the first time anywhere all three have been performed together in this way. Glass himself comments (in the liner notes to the 1987 recording of Akhnaten) that “Should the three operas be performed within a fairly narrow time span (within the same week, for example), I believe their internal connection will become increasingly obvious and provide the audience with a coherent musical and theatrical experience.” This is the gauntlet taken up by SOSA, which most attendees would probably agree has been successfully negotiated.
Are they operas? Perhaps not, by the usual criteria; but perhaps also one might reflect on what a modern opera is, exactly. At least a Glass opera is not like, for instance, Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, a theatrical text set to traditional sounding music which really adds nothing to the original. Indeed with Glass there is virtually no theatrical text at all, particularly not in the case of Einstein on the Beach. There is a very low ratio of solo to choral singing, which might lead one to characterize them as oratorios. However one categorises them, the lack of linear narrative and recognizable characters with solo arias means that, unless spectacularly staged, the enjoyment of the audience is going to depend very much on its appreciation of Glass’s music. Obviously this is not one of your more popular oeuvres.
In Adelaide, the opening night of Akhnaten was well patronized, with a few after-interval gaps in the seating. Performed two nights later, Einstein on the Beach appeared to have a somewhat smaller audience, but considering it was performed on a weeknight beginning at 5pm and lasting (with two intervals and a dinner break) to around 11pm, it was still a solid crowd, and one that seemed to stay put to the end. Satyagraha, rather more accessible and much shorter, played to what seemed to be an almost full house on the Saturday night. For those who sat through the three works, it was a most rewarding event.
Akhnaten, the most recently written work, was the first scheduled opera. Both it and Satyagraha rely on a biographical narrative in a way that Einstein on the Beach does not, although not in the same sense as a biopic does. In both cases, significant episodes from the lives of the eponymous historical figures are presented in a non-continuous but generally chronological way, but these individuals are not really operatic characters who express their feelings through music. There is a sense in which the episodes are like headlines in newspapers (particularly Satyagraha, see below), which the music amplifies in an invitation for the audience to meditate on their implications. In any case the audience is not invited to dwell on the text except in specific instances: in Akhnaten, much of the libretto is in languages not now generally spoken, and surtitles are not on offer. There is however a narrator who speaks in English and a sung piece, Akhnaten’s “Hymn to the Sun”, also specified to be sung in the language of where the opera is performed.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Philip Glass’s music is repetitive; most of Akhnaten is notoriously in A minor. For those accustomed to western music, classical or popular, this does incur a sense of sameness. Glass however ornaments his music in a different way than standard western music, varying the textures by adding layers of sound with different instruments, differing melodic lines and oddities of rhythm and dynamics. If the listener is attentive in a way that most music does not demand, there is a rich tapestry of difference to be heard amongst the seeming repetition. In Akhnaten, the very orchestra is not what we are used to. Apparently due to the limitations of the original performance stage, Glass eliminated the violins while keeping the other traditional strings, thus providing an unusual darkness to the score, and included a large amount of wind and brass as well as a synthesizer. There is an abundant use of trumpet, which harks back to the Baroque, when trumpets signified the presence of royalty or the military.
Akhnaten revolves around the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh who broke from tradition and tried to instill a religion of one god – Aten, represented by the sun – against a centuries old tradition of many gods, as worshipped by his father Amenhotep III and generations before. In this, Akhnaten is seen as a revolutionary, although the new ideology did not survive his death, and his son Tutankhamen reverted to the old ideas. The opera traverses the death of the old king Amenhotep, the coronation of Akhnaten, his destruction of the old ways (symbolized by his destroying the texts and scrolls of the previous regime), his love for his wife Nefertiti and their five girl children, and his declining grasp of his realm and eventual demise and defeat. Much of the text is drawn from documents which survive from c.3400 years ago.
Dynastic Egypt is represented on stage by a number of symbols, including an inverted pyramid as a backdrop surrounded by descending stairs, an ankh on a plinth on the stairs and the double crown, red and white, of lower and upper Egypt. When Akhnaten imposes the new religion, the inverted pyramid splits asunder. In general, the sets are more functional than representational. The lighting however is deployed cleverly to indicate the waning and rising of the sun, as the worship of Aten rises and wanes. The principals wear modern dress, chic party outfits for Nefertiti and Queen Tye, with the scribe/high priest in a brown 3 piece suit. There is a troupe of dancers, the Leigh Warren dancers, who, while highly skilled, seemed intrusive in this work, adding little to what narrative there is.
In this series of performances, the various music ensembles are led by Timothy Sexton, also the CEO and Artistic Director of the SOSA. This is clearly a monumental labour of love and no mere vanity project; his conducting throughout was astonishing in terms of musical understanding, subtlety and sheer stamina. He did a remarkable job in leading the Adelaide Art Orchestra in balancing the layers in the score. The State Opera SA Chorus, under chorus master Sexton, were exemplary in all three operas. The solo singers have less to do than in traditional opera, but the role of Akhnaten is obviously important, and he has two sustained vocal passages, the first in which he is joined by Nefertiti and Queen Tye, and the second being the “Hymn to the Sun”. Countertenor Tobias Cole has a lyrical mode which suits this music, and the musical control to succeed with the long straight-toned notes required. He also manages to bring more dignity to the role than you would expect from someone wearing jeans and a shiny jacket. Sopranos Cherie Boogart (Nefertiti) and Deborah Caddy (Queen Tye) lent excellent support, and Adam Goodburn managed to declaim and sing with equal facility as the scribe/high priest.
The really rather forbidding Einstein on the Beach – the performance spanning some six hours including two (relatively) short intervals and a dinner break – turned out to be a compelling performance despite a total lack of plot, character and indeed discernible meaning. Any relevance to any known facts about Albert Einstein the scientist is buried in abstruse musical structures, or so one is told, and obscure symbols in the setting. Some things are obvious, such as the light bars dropped from above during the latter part of the work. The only references to the beach (and there are two, not one as the program suggests) have no discernible relevance to Einstein, whereas several mentions of violins, and a violin solo do reference the scientist’s musical activity. References to Mr Bojangles have no apparent relationship to Bill Robinson nor to anything else, and so on. These texts are recited/declaimed by members of the chorus (Fiona Linn, Michael Denholm, Kristen Hardy, David Cox, Gabi Carter, Norbert Hohl) and the dance troupe (Deon Hastie, Gala Moody, Rebecca Jones), presumably chosen for their excellent diction. On the original recording, the texts are not so clear, but are almost murmured in the background so one only hears them in snatches, perhaps preferable to being able to hear every word. There is no solo singing, but much work for the chorus primarily involving numbers or sol-fa syllables.
This production features a fairly stark setting, the main feature being a white ramp towards the back of the stage, rising from the centre to the right, with a flank turning towards the audience. The musical ensemble led by Sexton played within the corner so formed. The chorus were generally singing behind this ramp, visible from the shoulders up, although at different times they moved about the stage.
The Leigh Warren Dancers were again a feature of the performance, but in Einstein they came into their own, providing a visual language to match that of the texts, singing and music, but still lacking any obvious meaning. At one point, the chorus singing do re mi is echoed by dance Rebecca Jones on point doing exercises at the barre, an ironic comment on the traditional in the midst of the modern.
Again, the choral singing was exemplary in its discipline, diction and beauty of tone, the dancers equally virtuosic. The music was provided by a small ensemble (3 reeds, one violin, 2 organs with three different players); awesomely talented violinist Carolyn Lam was outstanding in her solos and also played the organ throughout. Again massive kudos for Sexton.
One is left pondering what it is about this work that makes it so compelling. The nearest comparisons are some movies by Peter Greenaway, and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, where one keeps on watching despite lack of any evident meaning for the eye or ear. In Einstein on the Beach, the obvious answer lies in the music that pulls one along, and, in the present production, the complexity of patterning of music, text and dancing.
Satyagraha is a documentary compared to Einstein, despite the fact that the work is sung in Sanskrit, comprising excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, with no surtitles. Rather than supplying a libretto (as the program does for the first two works), we are given two pages from Indian Opinion (a newspaper published in South Africa while Ghandi was living there) which report a mass meeting in Johannesburg which inaugurated the Satyagraha (lit. insistence on truth, more broadly, nonviolent resistance) campaign. There are however recognizable historical characters, including Gandhi himself, nicely sung by Adam Goodburn. The three acts and their internal scenes are labeled with broad references to Gandhi’s life; here the audience is I think assumed to know something of that life.
Overall, the music is far more lyrical than that of the two preceding works and engages the forces of a traditional orchestra, on this occasion the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, once again brilliantly conducted by Timothy Sexton. The choir was again nigh perfect. The dancing however was provided by a different troupe, the Adelaide College of the Arts Dance Ensemble, which lacked the sinewy virtuosity of the Leigh Warren dancers, and had most unfortunate costumes into the bargain – flesh coloured body stockings with criss-crossing black lines. The costumes otherwise comprised colonial outfits for European characters, saris for the Indian ones. Gandhi himself appears first in a suit, as befitting a South African lawyer, eventually appearing via a mundu and shirt in a dhoti, indicating his journey to the familiar figure we all recognise. The set was again quite stark, with a circular space at the back with a set of stairs descending to the stage.
Some of the ensemble singing was spectacular, particularly in the last two scenes of Act II. The blended voices of Cherie Boogart and Jeremy Tatchell with the strong diamond hard soprano of Naomi Hede rising above all were particularly exciting.
One must acknowledge not only the towering achievement of Timothy Sexton, but also acknowledge Leigh Warren who not only provided the dance troupe but also directed, in cohort with set and costume designer Mary Moore and lighting designer Geoff Cobham. The result is a truly wonderful cohesive collaboration. T the artistic success of this venture is undeniable at every level, and one hopes its public reception will also repay the effort.
(Photos: Darren Williams)