8 March 2015

Stunning production of Akhnaten at Opera Vlaanderen Ghent

I have loved Akhnaten for many years, ever since I bought the CD, and have wanted to see it live for many years too. Some Philip Glass operas have made in onto the London stage, notably Satyagraha (which I saw in 2007, 2010 and 2013) and Einstein on the Beach (2012), but never Akhnaten.

I set my horizons a little wider and started looking at the calendar of events on the Philip Glass website looking for an international performance that I could get to and one came up in Belgium. Akhnaten was being staged in Antwerp and then Ghent with just a few shows in each city. After some consideration of other commitments I decided that the best time to try and get there was for a performance in Ghent on a Sunday afternoon.

I had a play with the theatre's booking system ahead of tickets for Akhnaten going on sale to make sure that I was ready. There were lots of seating options available and as they were very cheap compared to the UK so I set my heart on the stalls. In passing, I was intrigued to see that the seats were numbered with the odd numbers on one side of the house and the even numbers on the other.

Come the day I leaped on to the computer to buy my ticket and was alarmed to see that most of the seats had gone already. I counted myself lucky to get one at the back of the stalls, 15-13 (they do not use letters for the rows either), a bargain at €79.

I was a little concerned about the pole to the right of the stage but it stayed to the right of the stage and never got in the way.

What followed was strange and very beautiful, and not much of it made any sense.

I was not expecting to be able to follow any of the words and I was not expecting that to be a problem as a lot of them in the original recording were in the original languages anyway. The only significant text in English was the narration.

I half hoped that they would leave the narration in English but was not surprised that this was in Flemish. What was a surprise was that some of the other languages, i.e. those from ancient Egypt, were also translated into Flemish, which I could tell as the singer was clearly singing the same words as those appearing in the title screens at the sides of the stage. I did not see the point in this additional translation as nobody was meant to understand the ancient languages anyway.

The narration was a slight disappointment but only because the slow and very deep delivery of the original was very distinctive. This narrator also had to content with being filmed in a cardboard box most of the time, or at least that was what it looked like.

The original story of Akhnaten was fairly simple and told slowly exploiting as it did so the familiar Philip Glass repetitions and variations. In other words, the story did not matter very much.

Which is just as well as I had absolutely no idea what was going on for long periods. And I had even less idea what characters like the falling over woman were about.

So the story so far is of an opera in the wrong language and a confusing story. And I absolutely loved every minute of it.

Firstly this was Philip Glass' Akhnaten and his music was as beautiful as I expected it to be and the singing was excellent.

That alone might have been enough but what lifted this performance to the level of exceptional was the staging.  The two stock photos borrowed from the internet (the first and third pictures) are of the production should give some idea of the scale, colour and imagination. Adding to this bold use of props and costumes were projections and puppets. It was a fabulously rich staging and a feast for the eyes, as well as for the ears and mind. It was stunning; an experience rather than an event.

I sneakily took a photograph of the large cast taking one of their curtain-calls just to capture the moment and to remind me of the large cast and their extraordinary costumes.

It may have felt something of a gamble going all the way to Ghent just to see an opera but it was a gamble that easily paid off with an exceptional performance. More like this please.

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