If Reader theater critic Lee Sandlin had tried a bit harder I am sure he could have come to a better understanding of Philip Glass’s and Mary Zimmerman’s “unreadable” Akhnaten at the Chicago Opera Theater (July 28 review). Sandlin also complains that (a) the action is presented in highly formalized tableaux, but that the specifics are wholly mysterious, (b) Akhnaten himself sings in such a high voice range that it’s as if he’s from another galaxy, and (c) he is seen cuddling blissfully, unpharaohlike, with his children.
Had Lee Sandlin dropped by the Art Institute’s “Pharaohs” exhibit, shown up for the preshow lecture, or simply read the program notes, he might have learned that Akhnaton’s religious, cultural, and artistic revolutions (yes, there are carvings of him relaxing with his children) must have appeared to his contemporaries as having come from another galaxy.
The opera commences in 1300 BC with Akhnaten’s temple scribe writing busily; with striking gestures he will mark the limits of Akhnaten’s new city. The opera ends in our era, loutish tourists bespoiling the temple ruins. But a tour guide is deeply moved by the ancient temple and his gestures appear strikingly similar to those of Akhnaten’s scribe 3,000 years before.
The message isn’t that we stare uncomprehendingly at the past. Glass and Zimmerman’s opera shows how Akhnaten’s life and creations, like his scribe’s, like our own, will ultimately recede into ruins. But it shows as well the somewhat reassuring truth that something from each of our lives will nonetheless reach into the future for thousands of years and touch others in ways we can never know.
I wish Lee Sandlin had whacked Philip Glass on the head with his program. If artistic achievement is any indication, Philip would have turned around and kicked his ass.