In our longest story ever Classic Melbourne reports on the State Opera of South Australia’s massive undertaking: three cycles of the Philip Glass Trilogy of Portrait Operas; namely, Akhnaten, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. People came from as far away as Texas to visit Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, for the performances, with Peter Williams finding the shorter journey more than worthwhile. Here’s his report …
The three operas are based on individuals who have transformed the thinking of their times through the power of ideas rather than military force. There is also a musical theme running through them and Glass has said that he would like to see them done in a short space of time such as a week. He has got his wish.
Timothy Sexton, artistic director and conductor, said the reason the Opera was doing the works as a trilogy was “because we can. Over the years singers, dancers and instrumentalists have developed the skills to do this.” Even the Philip Glass Ensemble had to work hard to develop the skills for his music, which is a reaction to the atonalism and serialism of 20th century composers.
There have been smaller scale productions of each of these operas between 2002 and 2007. Einstein on the Beach was performed over separate seasons and Akhnaten was performed in the round. (I believe that production was taken to Melbourne as well.) Adam Goodman is reprising the role of Ghandi in Satyagraha from 2007 and Leigh Warren’s dance company is again involved.
The composer has given his approval for the change in format of Einstein on the Beach with the original 4-5 hour long production now in two sections separated by a dinner break and an intervals. Although completed last, Akhnaten begins the cycle, with Einstein on the Beach (composed first) and Satyagraha (based on Ghandi) to follow, all at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Unfortunately I was too late for the very well attended pre-opera talk for Akhnaten. As the Portrait Trilogy is not in the traditional style of plot, character and action opera, this may have given the audience an even better appreciation of what was to follow; after all, the singing was generally in Egyptian or without words. But there was a very informative program, and some moments such as the Hymn to Aten were sung in English.
Mary Moore’s set was a museum of dead ideas with a large inverted pyramid at the back of a staircase used at times as a platform for the chorus. On two stands were the Ankh key and the double crown of pharaonic Egypt. Three moveable mummy tombs were used as platforms for the main characters and gave an added spatial dimension. Other stands held books which could have represented the books of ancient, outdated wisdom and later the books of new ideas.
One very emotional scene was when Akhnaten and Nefertiti forcefully ripped out pages of books of the old gods to bring in the new religion. To reinforce the destruction of the old temples the inverted pyramid split to be replaced by giant blue triangle of the Nile. Effective lighting highlighted the mood changes as well as suggesting Aten, the God of Light.
Whilst the costumes of the chorus referenced Ancient Egyptian clothing, the main characters were in modern “corporate” costume which gave the whole staging an anachronistic yet universal feel. This was very appropriate to Glass’s intention to explore an “aural tapestry” that developed into an innovative visual and audio experience. Others may disagree, but I find the music here to be exceptionally emotional, though this seems not to have been the composer’s primary goal.
The trio of Tobias Cole (Akhnaten), Cherie Boogaart (Nefertiti) and Deborah Caddy (Queen Tye) in the Window Appearance was very effective and moving. The ethereal, enigmatic counter-tenor of Cole mingled yet contrasted with the warm mezzo of Boogaart in a register, which is almost the same. Caddy’s crystal clear soprano added to the effect. The trio of men: Andrew Turner (Horembhab), Robert England (Aye) and Adam Goodburn (High Priest/Scribe) sang well and the State Opera chorus and the Adelaide Art Orchestra were exemplary under the direction of Timothy Sexton.
The wonderful dancing was another highlight, giving a visual feel of Ancient Egypt and its ghosts, and beautifully conveying emotion like the love between Akhnaten and Nefertiti, and the family scene, a bedtime lullaby with Akhnaten “conducting” the six daughters (but without his son, Tutankhamen).
The tragedy of what was lost in the world’s first attempt at monotheology is highlighted at the end by quotes in English from a modern Fodor guidebook as the ghosts of the Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Nye sing wordlessly and fade into oblivion. It was a most moving conclusion to the opera; the silence of the audience was palpable, followed by well-deserved “bravos” and loud, generous applause.I just wanted it to start all over again.
Einstein on the Beach
The program notes referred to “the vast canvas of Einstein on the Beach”. Whilst this production did not quite fully realise a “vast canvas”’, (perhaps something to do with the constrictions of Her Majesty’s Theatre), it was certainly a tour-de-force.
Einstein on the Beach was presented as the second part of the $1.75 million Philip Glass trilogy by the State Opera of South Australia, artistic director and conductor, Timothy Sexton, having chosen to present the operas in chronological order, rather than date of composition. He and Leigh Warren, director and choreographer, have chosen to divide the opera into four parts – each part deals with different forces of mass and light. (This reworking of the 4-5 hour work has the express permission of the composer.) In keeping with the time dimension, the conductor and six musicians of the Adelaide Art Orchestra are on stage for the whole performance.
Much has been written about Einstein on the Beach and its “minimalist” label. Sexton, in the pre-opera talk, gave a very striking image of the “additive” aspect of the music as a train having carriages added or subtracted; appropriate for sections titled Train and Night Train. This aspect is most obvious in the “counting” sections of the work where it subtly but forcibly changes the rhythm, bars of 4/4 time – and even more complex rhythms – occasionally interrupting the 3/4 pattern.
It was one of the most physical shows I have seen; and I also wondered at times if it were an opera or a ballet. It was physical both in the sense of dancer movement and the always driven music, whether slow or fast, the composer having explained that it derived from the rock and jazz clubs of his youth.
The back of the set was angular with a sloping wall which met with tall side-flat both of which masked the bodies of the chorus who stood on a concealed stairway. A strip of light on the faces gave an interesting disembodied touch. (In practical terms it gave a hiding space for the necessary water bottles, and perhaps the scores). The corner join gave the space for the instrumentalists and conductor. A floating pyramid shape slowly descended and ascended in the first section of Mass. And the white surfaces of the set gave great opportunity for shifting light expressions from solid harshness through to almost underwater moving reflections. Other great lighting and set effects were the ice coldness of Space and the moving clear plastic tubes lit so that it seemed as if light was travelling though space.
The chorus were extremely well disciplined and precise. To begin with, the female voices sounded a little tired, but this wasn’t apparent as they continued and built in strength. It is a difficult sing. For example, one section goes for 19 minutes without a break in the vocal line. Great concentration is also needed as the sequences change and so much is repeated. A sound technician in the crew worked out that the Altos sing ‘Re’ from the sol-fa scale 2756 times!
The chorus became more integral to the staging in some parts. There were many bravura moments and many moving ensemble moments, most notably and humorously in the Paris section. Here the women strutted their stuff in black dresses with all the aplomb of catwalk professionals … or were they other “professionals” as they systematically stripped the male chorus? They were also required to produce some of the set movements from the dancers. They deserved all the enthusiastic applause they received for their delivery of Knee 3 just prior to the dinner break.
As for the dancing: whether it was solo, in pairs or ensemble, it was moving, it was thrilling, it was dynamic. At times it was naturalistic as in the pistons of the train, and again as the restless passengers of the night train trying to sleep. Another almost naturalistic scene was the Bed scene in which a series of couples (including same-sex), with the light bulbs on the floor glowing like a warm fireside, mingled then quietly disappeared.
Dance soloists were also given the task of reciting set texts. Mr Bo Jangles was done in front of a mic, whereas I was in a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket became increasingly frantic and comedic – as did These are the days.
The instrumentalists also deserved their applause. As with all the performers, they were extremely well rehearsed and responsive to Sexton’s conducting, particularly Carolyn Lam who played the violin solo so beautifully (and was also one of the keyboard players). As well as remembering the sequence changes and the number of repetitions, she also had to cope with a dancer shouting text in her ear. The sax solo was movingly understated.
The ending moved to the park bench where after all our experience of Einstein formulas, there was no formula for love. It was a touching and quiet end.
Satyagraha brings to a close the first of the three cycles of the Philip Glass Portrait trilogy. The trilogy was a mammoth undertaking involving over 180 people, including 140 performers. Over 400 hours went in rehearsal over three months. It involved three opening nights in one week. This was an example of one aspect of “satyagraha” – the communal, co-operative work to achieve a goal.
This production brilliantly married both the form and subject of the work.
The set of ascending levels and the large circular opening at the back was bathed in quiet blue lighting as the audience came in – the steps to enlightenment and a portal or moon. It was a simple and effective set that started as a field of battle where the Indian gods Arjuna and Krishna discuss the ethics of action and non-action. It would later become the commune farm based on Tolstoyan philosophy. The most moving scene was where a spotlit Ghandi sat unmoving in the centre of the chorus of striking followers – and steel bars slowly descended to create a prison.
A team of dancers, from Adelaide College of the Arts, formed another chorus that at times reflected the action, and at other times was the crowd who threatened and mobbed him. Dressed in black body stockings the performers were a tight and disciplined group, sometime shadows, sometimes mythical animals and birds. At the end they were birds flying below the enlightened Ghandi sitting cross-legged on the top level of the stairs.
The opera’s Sanskrit text from the Bhagavad Gita is used to depict the moral and ethical aspects of Gandhi’s life, rather than tell his story. Thus, Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna speak about the dilemma of action or inaction on the field of war. The two parts were strongly sung by Mark Oates and Joshua Rowe. But the costume choice of early 20th century soldier and airman with large silver bows seemed awkwardly point-making. Ghandi, still dressed in a suit, is buffeted between the two.
Later at the Tolstoy farm, the text speaks of co-operation. Ghandi admired this aspect of Tolstoy. And here we see his wife and co-workers working together with gestures that suggested sharing and distribution of life-giving water. “Such an earthly task do free from desire. You will perform a high task,” they sang.
Whilst all principal roles were sung well, it was the chorus and Adam Goodburn as Ghandi who most made the show. The chorus were polished, accurate and conveyed the emotional text of the work be it as soldiers, card-burning protesters or followers of Ghandi. The fact that several of them had appeared in each of the earlier shows – over eight hours of performing before this – was amazing. They proved one of the biggest strengths of the Trilogy overall.
Adam Goodburn had already performed this role several years ago; here was an opportunity to bring greater maturity to the role. His voice was often beautiful in conveying the meditative quality of the work with long, often demanding stretches. At these times he was often by himself on stage and there was a powerful vulnerability about the portrayal. There was a real presence with his acting. Once or twice there was vocal strain, but by subtly dropping volume it evoked his vulnerability even more.
The strings and woodwinds of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Timothy Sexton played accurately and had some wonderful moments. Highlights were the cello ostinato for Goodburn’s opening aria and later a flute obbligato. The Orchestra brought out the drive and pulse of this beautiful music. (One regret was not being in the balcony to better hear them).
By the end of the work Ghandi had moved from a lawyer’s suit to his famous dhoti and achieved the 7 level of enlightenment. The State Opera of South Australia had taken us through a mesmerising journey too.
In all, it was a magnificent end to wonderful week of opera. Congratulations to all involved, especially Timothy Sexton whose energy and concentration had seen the Trilogy through to success after success.
Peter Williams reviewed the first cycle of the entire Philip Glass Trilogy at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, in early August. The production was by the State Opera South Australia, with The State Opera Chorus and soloists, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Art Orchestra.
Editor’s note: Picture:Darren Williams