The new director of opera at the Boston Conservatory is baritone Sanford Sylvan, who is leading the school, and its operatic training, in a new direction. Last weekend he made his debut as a stage director with Philip Glass's "Akhnaten." The conservatory had the cast for it, and as a performer who premiered works by Glass and John Adams, Sylvan feels that it's important for young singers to get an early start on learning how to deal with the special theatrical, musical, and vocal demands of this new kind of music-theater.
"Akhnaten," now 21 years old, is the third work in Glass's trilogy of "portrait" operas. Akhnaten was the most fascinating of Egyptian pharaohs, the man who introduced monotheism to Egypt. Glass presents his story in a series of isolated but defining moments (the funeral of his father, his own coronation, etc.). The texts are ancient and sung in the original languages (Egyptian, Akkadian, biblical Hebrew), while a Scribe delivers spoken translations in the language of the audience to bridge the scenes.
Sylvan's staging was simple and low-budget, but it was also intelligent and original. His point of departure may have been Wieland Wagner's production of Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin," which Sylvan must have seen many times during his youth as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera.
The work alternates between domestic scenes featuring Akhnaten and his wife and later with his six daughters and big, public scenes with ceremonial processions.
The chorus stands on risers at the back, while the action unfurls in front of them. Sylvan managed the processions with symmetrical dignity and showed his originality in the domestic scenes. The love duet was an erotic encounter on a bed; the daughters played childhood games with the old sacred objects Akhnaten had abandoned. The scene of Akhnaten's overthrow became a series of ritual murders or human sacrifices.
And the final scene, which Glass places in the present, when tourists visit the ancient sites, was even more original; the tourists include Akhnaten and his family. A daughter who escaped the carnage is there, too, and she awakens Akhnaten and the others to their memories. Glass's libretto ends with ghostly specters haunting the ruined temples; in Sylvan's staging, the work closes with an apotheosis and the blessing of the sun god.
Designer Caleb Wertenbaker's risers could serve for "Lohengrin" or "Cosi fan tutte" or virtually any other opera; some panels of hieroglyphics made them site-specific. Linda O'Brien's lighting kept faces in shadow for too long, but Stacey Stephens's costumes were striking, and there wasn't a zipper in sight.
Countertenor Jonas Laughlin was a sympathetically boyish presence as Akhnaten, who was only a teenager when he came to power, and he sang with exceptional beauty of tone that was compromised by occluded diction. To be fair, Glass's musical prosody in Akhnaten's "Hymn to the Sun" isn't helpful (the accented syllable in "pasture" isn't normally the second). Amy Lawrence pealed out tireless top notes as Queen Tye, the monarch's mother, and Kala Maxym's mezzo sounded lustrous in the music of his beloved Nefertiti. Ovidio Esquivel and Jamian Coleman produced handsome sounds as the bad guys, and the chorus sounded splendid.
Beatrice Jona Affron, who conducted the Boston Lyric Opera's production of the work, returned to lead it again with concentration, clarity, and force, and the playing was quite beautiful. Glass entrusts a lot to his violinless orchestra, varying its timbres as subtly as he varies its rhythmic and harmonic patterns. The trumpet has a prominent role in the love duet, and its line is more interesting than anything the singers get to do.
The music of "Akhnaten" will both reward and infuriate because of Glass's refusal to do many things the ear expects and his absolute reliance on completing formal designs and meeting expectations; so will his anti-operatic stance, which can be compellingly theatrical anyway. The Boston Conservatory's small theater was sold out, as hot as Luxor in August, and, by the end, full of tumultuous enthusiasm.