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08 Feb 2005

Glass's Akhnaten in Boston

The Boston Conservatory of Music gave two performances, each with a different cast, of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last week five years to the day after the work’s Boston premiere by the Boston Lyric Opera in February 2000. Aside from the pleasure of being able to hear a big contemporary work again so soon, the two productions were so radically different from one another that a whole new perspective on Glass’s work could be had.

The Boston Conservatory of Music gave two performances, each with a different cast, of Philip Glass's Akhnaten last week five years to the day after the work's Boston premiere by the Boston Lyric Opera in February 2000. Aside from the pleasure of being able to hear a big contemporary work again so soon, the two productions were so radically different from one another that a whole new perspective on Glass's work could be had.

Boston Conservatory (as differentiated from the New England Conservatory of Music--although the two do share some resources in NEC's opera productions) has specific theater and dance specialties. The opera department has recently been reorganized and is now under the directorship of the distinguished American baritone Sanford Sylvan, who also directed this production. The opera was presented in the Conservatory's problematic theater which is more of an auditorium with virtually no off-stage space, cramped seating and, at least on this occasion, totally inadequate ventilation. Nevertheless, both performances were sold out with waiting lists and a wholly mixed crowd, particularly as to age, reacted to the work and its highly effective performance with high enthusiasm.

Sylvan presented this highly ritualistic work as part oratorio, with the chorus standing on risers at the rear with their scores, a decision that did two things — emphasize the static nature of Egyptian religious practice and, I suspect, solve the problem of short rehearsal time. The priesthood, a major antagonistic force in Akhnaten, was treated in a manner Verdi would very much have approved — an implacable, vengeful and controlling obstacle to any deviation from the established norm. Akhnaten and his family life, by contrast, were depicted in a realistic style with great informality, much touching, affection and fun in game playing in the face of crushing hierarchical convention. The climactic scene in which the family is slaughtered by the priests became shocking in its inhuman violence and blatant prejudice.

Beatrice Jona Affron, who has conducted for Boston Lyric opera and been a cover conductor for the Boston Symphony, led the orchestra in an assured, richly colored performance of Glass's minimalist score. The young cast all performed well with an especially striking vocal performance by Matthew Truss a young African-American countertenor with a brilliant top voice. (Interestingly, the BLO performance lost its noted countertenor lead during rehearsals and a student countertenor from the New England Conservatory learned the role quickly and performed with great assurance--something very right is going on in our music schools here in Boston). Despite the heat and lack of leg room in the theater, the packed house gave the performers a huge reception at the end of an excellent performance.

I will make one final, possibly controversial, observation: The epidemic of obesity we are being warned of among our young people by health authorities was in full view on stage, among singers in their late teens to mid 20s. My standard is not the unhealthily dieted super model look, but at least six of the leading performers, both male and female, were between 40 and perhaps 130 pounds overweight, causing some of them real difficulty in executing simple stage movement. The problem was exacerbated by the costume designer's inability to fit individual singers (the opera had a different cast for each performance) as flatteringly as he might have liked.

William Fregosi
Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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