Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On watching Aknaten and my love of minimalism

We weren't expecting the Pharaoh's cock. As it swung slowly slowly down the stage in time to the slow slow music, the audience did that thing when confronted with a sudden penis. It leaned forward. The woman next to me raised her opera glasses.

It's strange seeing a penis you're not expecting to have sex with. It just looks silly. A placeholder until something better comes along. The lorem ipsum of genitalia. And yet, for the gays in the audience (and there were a lot of us) it provided something you don't quite expect from a Philip Glass opera - titillation. Pharaoh hadn't just been to the gym.

I wonder how you cast the pharaoh's penis? I know actors now expect to be asked how they look shirtless. But this is something else. Imagine the audition: "Can you sing really high? Lovely. And do you look good with your top off? Marvellous. Finally, have you a todger that'd frighten a horse?"

An even bigger thing than Akhnaten's willy was that I've finally seen all three of Philip Glass's operas. Well, the ones that count, rather than the silly later ones, like the one where an android clone of Disney chased Oppenheimer around the stage, and no I fuck you not.

I've loved Philip Glass for 20 years. Ever since my first boyfriend would put on Songs From The Trilogy while we read in bed (I'd read about Cthulhu, he'd read a Haynes manual). It's the definitive album for people who believe that five notes in their music is one note too many. I was so entranced I used to leave it on a loop when I went out to work as revenge for my neighbours keeping me up till four am. I loved it that much. But I never dreamed I'd actually see any of the operas live. But I've finally done it.

Satyagraha (the one in Sanskrit about shoes and peace) was the first. I cried. Every single one of the four times I saw it. It was like being hit very slowly by a wall of sexy maths. I took friends to see it (big mistake). I went alone. I even went with a generous friend who adores good seats - sat right at the front was as if you were leaning into a musical wind machine. It was enrapturing - even if the last hour was simply people unrolling sellotape near Martin Luther King. Satyagraha was a thing of beautry. (Even if that guy on a date kept texting his friend to say "kill me, kill me now").

Einstein On The Beach was also wonderful. It was Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical, in which you got numbers yelled at you repeatedly for five hours, with occasional breaks for someone to intone "I went to a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket". It was an experience akin to taking the Piccadilly Line to Heaven. It took a lot longer than you thought, you were glad to get a seat, and the eventual arrival was amazing. Sometimes you laughed, sometimes you cried, and sometimes you just wanted to eat the arm-rest. (I'll never forget the couple who broke up during it. The seats were so narrow it took her twenty minutes to storm out. Glass would have approved)

And now, finally, we get Akhnaten on the London stage. For those of you who don't know it, it's the Phillip Glass opera with a plot: Man becomes pharaoh; declares the old gods are dead; goes and worships the sun; forgets to open his post, so doesn't pay the water bill or stop the country being invaded; dies; gets forgotten.

Of all of the opears, it was the one I was looking forward to the most. It almost has a few foot-tapping showstoppers (The Hymn To The Sun, and the bit where someone sings a a page from a guidebook). The opera is set in Ancient Egypt. It features people in amazing hats. And yet... much as I wanted to love it, it wasn't quite as amazing as the other two. The music was lacking that Dyson airblade feel of Glass turned up to 11. It was quite loud and it was quite there, but it wasn't beating you around the head screaming "LOVE ME! LOVE MY THREE NOTES UNTIL I PLAY YOU A FOURTH!".

The staging was also disappointing. The ENO's version of Satyagraha felt strapped for cash in the last hour, this got threadbare during the first. In Satyagraha giant puppets warred among newspaper cities. In Akhnaten, some extras juggled. That was about it. A dozen people, throwing little balls in the air. They did it nicely, but it felt like a warm-up act on The Paul Daniels Magic Show rather than The Opera Spectacle To End All Opera Spectacle.

It wasn't a complete bust. There was a lovely bit where a giant moon floated over the stage and the acrobats briefly conjured up an orrery from Swiss Balls.... and then they threw them at each other like a pre-natal aquarobics class. Actually that was exactly it - this was a Philip Glass Zumba class (Oh crikey. Imagine that. "And a 1...2...and 3...3...3...3....3....").

By the last half hour the production had run out of money and ideas. The dead pharaoh stood around glumly while the acrobats sadly nudged their balls across the stage (Not literal balls - Akhnaten's were the only testes on show). That was it. Half an hour of men in lycra pretending to be cats, very very slowly. 

The curtain call was nice, though. You found out that one of the acrobats was fit as. The rest of it was an exercise in Curious Clapping. We clapped the acrobats (especially you, third from the right). We clapped the chorus. We clapped, um, that man in the hat from Act One. And the man in the other hat. And the fat man in the fat hat. Then we sort of clapped a bit more enthusiastically for the woman who may have been the Queen Mother. Then some jubilation for the chorus of Caitlin Morans (playing the pharaoh's daughters / social media opinion formers). Then we were sort of pleased for the woman who sort of played Nefertiti. And finally we were ecstatic for the guy who'd played Akhnaten. Mind you, I'm still not sure if the standing ovation was for his singing or for his personal standing ovation. Both were quite remarkable.

Anyway, if you've got the chance, walk, don't run to the ENO. Glass wouldn't like it if you ran.

1 comment:

JahTeh said...

I would leave a comment but I think I slid into a parallel universe where letters rang around punching each other pretending to be a blog post. And I hit my nose on the screen trying to see that photo better.
I blame Cthulhu, it distracted the thinking part of my brain,the bit my mother hasn't siphoned off.