The Arts Desk

Akhnaten, English National Opera
Mindfulness meets magic in this outstanding fusion
of music and movement

By Alexandra Coghlan
March 5, 2016

What a load of balls. No, seriously. Globes, orbs, moons, suns, juggling balls, beach balls, er balls balls: if it’s spherical and pregnant with symbolism then you’re bound to find it somewhere on the props table for English National Opera’s Akhnaten. At the centre of Phelim McDermott’s new production of Philip Glass’s opera is a troupe of jugglers. If that idea appals you it’s worth suppressing your doubts, because it turns out that the greatest trick on display in this mesmerising show isn’t ball skills at all, it’s conjuring – dramatic sleight of hand of the most sophisticated, bewitching kind.

ENO and Philip Glass have a long history, and recently McDermott – artistic director of theatre company Improbable – has become a regular part of it. But where his Perfect American couldn’t find that Disney magic, and his Satyagraha stumbled under the weight of too many ideas, his Akhnaten has tapped into something very special, all the more so for being completely unexpected.

If the juggling sounds like a gimmick, then it doesn’t read at all like one in a production that takes a Robert Wilson approach to visual ritual and repetition. Performed by Gandini Juggling, the elegant sequences of movement become a surprisingly expressive metaphor for the mystical power of Akhnaten’s new religion. We understand his fascination with the sun because we share it, unable to draw our eyes away from something we too are captivated by, but cannot fully grasp. Only very occasionally do we stray into Cirque du Soleil territory. A spontaneous burst of applause in Act II signals that thrills have briefly overpowered drama.

The stage pictures that McDermott and designers Tom Pye and Kevin Pollard (sets and costumes, respectively) create here are startlingly lovely. Whether it’s the sun, flushing through the spectrum of colours during Akhnaten’s aria, or the loin-tighteningly sensual duet for Akhnaten and Nefertiti, weaving and winding themselves up in fleshy skeins of material during their duet (the natural heirs to Ligeti’s Spermando and Clitoria) there’s a loving care for detail here that makes the slow pace of movement and the gradual, incremental shifts of musical patterning a meditative delight rather than a frustration.

It helps that, unlike Satyagraha, the repetitions and ritual of Akhnaten remain largely abstract (ghastly spoken text aside), free from the mystical pseudo-profundity that so exhausts in the earlier work. There’s religion, certainly, but no preaching. In many ways this third panel in Glass’s “portrait” trilogy is closer to Einstein on the Beach, though more musically fluid, more yielding in its ostinatos and (despite the lack of violins) more varied in its colours.

Visuals glance towards Egypt without feeling bound by it, and the result blends metallic, industrial minimalism with richly textured fabrics and headdresses – the very model of a modern Egyptian Pharoah.

Beguiling in his intensity, Anthony Roth Costanzo (pictured above right) makes a monarch worth converting for, Tiresias-like in his fluid sexuality. If his laser-point tone won’t be for everyone, bringing with it a certain sourness of pitch before the release of vibrato settles the note, there’s no arguing with the vocal power he brings, holding his own above even Glass’s thickest textures. But while his “Hymn to the Sun” is compelling, it’s in ensembles – the duet with Emma Carrington’s generous-toned Nefertiti, and the trio with Carrington and Rebecca Bottone’s radiant Queen Tye– that he really shines. Despite negotiating some ghastly English text, Zachary James has tremendous power and presence as the Scribe, translating this parable down the ages for us.

The ENO chorus once again prove their worth, making the most of Glass’s monumental writing while singing in Akkadian and Hebrew and even doing a little elementary juggling. Conductor Karen Kamensek finds just enough space for poetry within the rigid architecture of Glass’s music, shaping a reading that never insists upon its own loveliness, and is all the more beautiful for that.

Already the best-selling contemporary opera in ENO’s history, this Akhnaten is a timely reminder of just what the company is good at, and just how damn good they are at doing it. It’s an argument more powerful than any amount of figures or rhetoric for the ENO’s survival, and should be mandatory viewing at Arts Council England.


Opera News

Akhnaten: English National Opera

By George Hall
March 3, 2016

ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA has done well by Philip Glass. Back in 1985, ENO became the first U.K. company to stage one of his operas—Akhnaten, then just one year old. ENO followed up with the first European performance of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 in 1988, Satyagraha in 2007, and the UK premiere of The Perfect American in 2013.

In return Glass has proved to be good box-office for ENO. The production of Satyagraha—by Phelim McDermott of the fluidly constituted creative theatre collective Improbable—has enjoyed two well-attended revivals. Advance bookings for the new Akhnaten (seen Mar. 4), also the work of McDermott & Co., were such that ENO was able to announce on the first night that the show would be the highest-selling contemporary work the company had ever presented. (At a time when a cut of £5 million year-on-year in its annual grant from Arts Council England threatens both ENO’s full-time status, and specifically the size and contracts of its chorus, such income is more than usually welcome.)

Akhnaten is the third part of the so-called “portrait” trilogy of Glass’s operas, each of which tackles the subject of a historical individual whose ideas changed the world: Einstein (Einstein on the Beach, 1976), Gandhi (Satyagraha, 1980) and finally the eponymous Egyptian Pharaoh in Akhnaten (1984).

The latter, who probably reigned between around 1351 and 1334 BC, dismissed Egypt’s ancient pantheon of gods and refocused his nation’s worship entirely on the sun-god, Aten. In the opera’s first act we witness the funeral of his father Amenhotep III, his coronation as the new Pharaoh, and his announcement of his change of name from Amenhotep IV to Akhnaten (“spirit of Aten”). The remainder of the piece presents Akhnaten’s repudiation of the old religion and its priests, the building of a new city dedicated to the sun-god, and finally the isolation of the king and his family from a nation that wishes to return to its old faith and which eventually overthrows them. At the end Akhnaten’s son Tutankhamun is crowned by the pantheistic priests—a scene counterpointed by the vision of a group of modern-day students being taught the historical subject by their professor. The result is effectively a meditation on the transience of human achievement and the processes of historical change. 

Akhnaten is a fine example of Glass’s most elevated operatic style in that it comprises more a sequence of rituals than a narrative in the traditional sense. In Tom Pye’s monumental, multi-level sets and Kevin Pollard’s gorgeously colorful and extravagantly complex costumes, each scene became sharply etched in the visual memory. Extra fascination was provided by the involvement of the ten-strong skills ensemble Gandini Juggling, whose director, Sean Gandini, choreographed its various complex routines, one of the most spectacular of which saw the audience applaud during the music itself—a rare event in any contemporary opera. (Juggling is apparently illustrated on the walls of some ancient Egyptian tombs.)

A libretto mainly sung in ancient Egyptian, ancient Hebrew and Akkadian (an extinct tongue long spoken in Mesopotamia) is clearly intended less for instant communication than for color and atmosphere, but the role of the Scribe—a character left out, incidentally, of ENO’s 1985 staging, but here taken with firmness and clarity by bass Zachary James—provided a useful narrative framework with his periodic Anglophone pronouncements.  

All in all, the staging combined spectacle (no bad thing in the theatre possessing the widest proscenium arch in London, and an equivalently vast stage) with meaning, McDermott’s rich imagination coming up with a constant flow of images that exemplified the ideas upon which the piece is based.

Individual vocal performances, too, were powerful as well as aptly cast.  The plangent tones of countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo represented the doomed Akhnaten, the elegant mezzo-soprano of Emma Carrington his queen and wife Nefertiti, and the grandeur of soprano Rebecca Bottone the concerns of his ambitious mother, Tye.  The rich sonorities of Clive Bayley’s bass gave him considerable authority as Aye, Nefertiti’s father and Akhnaten’s advisor. The ENO orchestra and chorus both had an exceptional evening under the baton of Karen Kamensek, who articulated with a steady hand a score characteristically made up of multiple repetitions of simple, tiny ideas.


The Guardian

Akhnaten review – a gloriously coloured eye-catching affair

By Andrew Clements
March 6, 2016

Akhnaten was the first of Philip Glass’s operas to be seen in the UK when it was performed by English National Opera in 1985, a year after its Stuttgart premiere. Thirty years and more than 20 further Glass operas later, it is back at the Coliseum, in a new production by the Improbable company team of director Phelim McDermott and designers Tom Pye (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes). It’s a gloriously coloured, eye-catching affair, gorgeously lit by Bruno Poet, but much more concerned with creating sumptuous tableaux than McDermott’s previous ENO productions of Glass’s Satyagraha and The Perfect American.

The score is already a pretty oblique portrayal of the life and ideas of the 18th-dynasty Egyptian pharaoh, who attempted to convert his kingdom to monotheism, and whether it needs the extra layers of imagery that are loaded on it in this staging is debatable. Early Glass operas are never strong on story line, but as I remember it, there was much more sense of narrative threaded through the earlier ENO Akhnaten than there ever is here.

The texts are mostly sung in Egyptian, with only the spoken invocations (imposingly delivered by Zachary James) in English, and the parade of visual images crosses many cultural boundaries. Some of them are from ancient Egypt, but others come from more recent European traditions – Akhnaten’s coronation robe seems to have been borrowed from one of Philip II’s infantas, while James Cleverton’s Horemhab is got up like a banana-republic dictator, and Clive Bayley’s Aye could have absconded from a Mummers play.

At its best, in the chorus-dominated first act, which includes Akhnaten’s coronation and his creation of the new religion, the production works like a fantastically detailed automaton, with a perfectly co-ordinated “skills group”, Gandini Juggling, supplying the perpetual movement that correlates well with the loops and repetitions of Glass’s orchestral score. As it goes on, though, the visual ideas repeat themselves and tend to swamp any dramatic ones; there are a few too many balls tossed around and clubs wielded in the later acts, at times when something a bit more substantial is needed.

But the conductor Karen Kamensek makes sure the orchestral writing is never homogenised into minimalist mush, and, as ever, the beleaguered ENO Chorus rises magnificently to every challenge it’s given. The trio of protagonists, Anthony Roth Costanza as Akhnaten, Emma Carrington as his wife Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone as his mother Queen Tye, make the most of the characterisation their vocal lines allow, too, even if Costanza’s rather reedy, edgy counter-tenor sound won’t be to all tastes. Though this production may not quite be the revelation that Satyagraha was, it is still on its own terms a very fine piece of work, both theatrically and musically.


The Daily Express

REVIEW: Philip Glass's Akhnaten

By William Hartson
March 8, 2016

I MUST admit that I went to Philip Glass's Akhnaten at the English National Opera with few expectations of enjoying it.

I have long seen him as a master of film music (for which he has three times been nominated for an Oscar) but I have generally found his operas repetitive to the point of boredom. Yet I found Akhnaten mesmerising beautiful and I still do not understand why.

The story, if this can really be said to have a story, is about the life of Akhenaten (Glass dropped the first 'e' for some reason) who was pharaoh of Egypt around 1350BC. He was married to Nefertiti and is best known for trying to convert his countrymen away from believing in a multitude of gods to worshipping only the sun god. The opera, however, is sung in a mixture of ancient languages without surtitles, and the only guide to what's happening is a bewildering commentary delivered with great power but not really telling us much.

Individually, however, there are a number of things that hold the attention. First, the singing is beautiful, especially from the countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo in the title role; then there are the striking costumes and the general design which makes a great deal of the theme of sun-worship with balls and orbs and other circular elements cropping up all over the place; then there is the orchestral playing, conducted with astonishing precision by Glass specialist Karen Kamensek, who showed an impressive ability to conduct with both hands following different rhythms.

For such repetitive music to have the desired hypnotic effect, there is no room for any slippage in the rhythm and Kamensek kept the various parts of the orchestra and the singers perfectly together.

The greatest credit, however, must go todirector Phelim McDermott and his Improbable theatre company, who added not only constant visual delights but also a team of jugglers whose rhythmic ball and club tossing fitted the music astonishingly well. Again, I cannot say why I found this so riveting, but the music, the costumes, the design and the juggling all fitted together so well that the overall effect was stunning.

I cannot say that I learned anything new about Akh(e)naten or ancient Egypt from all this, or have any idea why the pharaoh changed sex after his coronation, but the whole thing added up to a glorious experience. I do not know whether one can call it opera when nothing much happens, and if it did you wouldn't recognise it anyway, but I can truly say that I cannot remember ever enjoying anything so much more than I had expected to. For me, and much of the rest of the audience to judge from their applause and excited chatter at the end, the ENO's Akhnaten is a truly improbable success.



Akhnaten, Coliseum, London, review:
Superb singing and breath-taking theatrical moments

By Michael Church
March 5, 2016

Those of us who missed the first ENO production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten have had to wait thirty years for the second, but the wait has been worth it. Meanwhile we’ve seen the first two operas in his great minimalist trilogy – Einstein at the Barbican, and Satyagraha at ENO – but this new production, by Phelim McDermott and his Improbable company, brings the whole to a completion of unforgettable magnificence.

Glass views Einstein as the man of Science; Gandhi (the subject of Satyagraha) as the man of Politics; and Akhnaten – the Egyptian Pharaoh who tried to replace his countrymen’s multiple deities with one single universal deity, thus prefiguring the Judeo-Christian God - as the quintessential man of Religion. Glass was fired to create this opera on reading a scholarly book which argued that all the events in the fictional life of Oedipus had happened centuries before in the life of this Egyptian monarch. Glass isn’t bothered about the veracity of this claim: all that matters to him is that it makes perfect theatrical sense.

And how. In this production the Coliseum stage glows like a succession of Rothko paintings thanks to lighting by the aptly-named Bruno Poet, and to designs and costumes (by Tom Pye and Kevin Pollard respectively) whose opulent beauty offers a continuous feast for the eyes. This show takes its visual cues from the bas reliefs reflecting life in Akhnaten’s court, with the stylised rays of the sun being represented on stage in exactly the manner in which they beam down on the carved figures. Akhnaten celebrated the sun-disc, and that is what glows throughout this show in ever more amazing forms.

McDermott, meanwhile, has taken his leitmotif from an ancient fresco showing girls juggling with balls: thus do his ‘skills ensemble’ both worship their human deity and conjure up the rising sun. By the end of three hours this conceit may have worn a bit thin, but it’s executed with such faultless brilliance that one doesn’t mind.

All the movement is in slow motion, so that the story feels like a glacially-animated bas relief; this is perfectly in accord with the momentum of the music, which has its own glacial momentum, though it also has radiant warmth. Glass’s score may seem simple, but it’s actually very clever, with Baroque interpolations punctuating the minimalist figurations, and luminous shifts from minor to major.

With Karen Kamensek propelling events from the pit, the singing is superb, most notably by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo whose robing, enthronement, hermaphrodite sex-change, and death all become breath-taking theatrical moments. No praise too high for Emma Carrington’s luscious Nefertiti, Rebecca Bottone’s spooky Queen Tye, James Cleverton’s resounding General, and for the chorus, whose threatened strike on 18 March would unquestionably scupper the show.

It’s wise to read the programme beforehand, as the libretto – from the Egyptian Book of the Dead – is sung in Hebrew, and the plot is quite intricate. But who cares if with this staging the story doesn’t entirely come across? Just go with the wonderful flow.



Glass's Akhnaten at ENO:
an utterly absorbing visual and aural experience

By David Karlin
March 5, 2016

Philip Glass’s 1983 Akhnaten is, I suppose, an opera. It has, after all, singers, an orchestra, chorus, staging, even arias. But Akhnaten diverges so far in so many different aspects from one’s standard expectations of opera that it’s hard to find a point of reference: nothing is what you expect. The results, however, make for utterly absorbing listening and – especially – viewing. Visually, Phelim McDermott’s new production for English National Opera never falls short of spectacular.

Glass’s music shares a quality with that of Bach: he is constantly setting up your ear to take it travelling in some direction where the endpoint is deeply satisfying. But the resemblance ends there: where Bach achieves his goals through the complexity of the counterpoint or of harmonic progression, Glass achieves them with repetition and simplicity. In Akhnaten, we never stray far from A minor and pretty much none of the music is without some repeating figure – most often in the foreground, sometimes in the background. But within those repeating figures lie ever-changing rhythms and combinations of instruments, and the relatively small number of harmonic shifts are compelling. Does repetitive have to mean boring? Absolutely not: after three hours, I was still entranced by the music.

Glass isn’t really interested in relating the details of the story of the Egyptian pharaoh who attempted to convert Egypt to a new monotheistic religion. “Akhnaten inherits the throne, he converts Egypt to monotheism, he retreats into self-imposed spiritual exile, the old order overthrow and kill him” just about sums up all the details that we find out. Glass is more interested in painting sonic pictures of the emotions surrounding the ideas and in the psychosexual aspects: Akhnaten is considered as the archetype of the Oedipus complex, and although he was married to Nefertiti, one of the great figures of female beauty in the ancient world, the depictions of him are notably gender-ambiguous, something of a point of focus in this staging. Glass brings out the emotions by varying the instrumentation and by blending voice types in a way that's quite unique. In this production, Anthony Roth Costanzo brings to the title role a voice that packs more raw power than any countertenor I can remember, while being weird, other-worldly and totally pure. He shows utter commitment to the role, and is ably supported by Emma Carrington’s Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone’s Queen Tye: their duets and trios enfold us in warmth.

The ENO’s chorus are on strong form. Large tracts of the singing happens in ancient, forgotten languages, there are no surtitles, and anyway, I couldn’t understand much of the singing when it was in English. Inexplicably, this didn’t seem to matter: conductor Karen Kamensek weaves everything into a wonderful, ever shifting tapestry of sound. Such narratives as there is gets carried forward by spoken word, most notably by the imposing Zachary James.

Most of us have strong mental images of ancient Egypt. Tom Pye’s sets and Kevin Pollard’s costumes continually refer us to those images – the silhouetted views in profile, the heads of animal gods, the regal headdresses – without ever attempting to be “period costumes”. With the help of Bruno Poet’s lighting, they keep springing surprises on us: the scene in which Akhnaten is dressed for his coronation, from stark full frontal nakedness to orientalist baroque regalia of extreme opulence, surrounded by light rays to pick out the famous Egyptian sun god iconography, is just one of many visual delights; the great orb which shifts colours as Act II progresses is another. This is a production that is constantly watchable in the same way that Glass’s music is constantly fascinating to the ear.

Oh, and there’s juggling. A team of ten jugglers, to be precise, Gandini Juggling, who display great collective virtuosity with juggling clubs and balls varying in size from standard to gigantic. Opinions will vary as to “stroke of genius” or “overdone gimmick”: it worked for me. The juggling forms part of stage movement which is choreographed with the precision of a Swiss watch, and keeps holding our attention.

Before coming to Akhnaten, I could not have conceived of how an opera could have a single pace for the whole narrative – glacially slow – and none the less be utterly enthralling from beginning to end. And while I’m not at all convinced that I’ve taken in any of the underlying messages, this production has genuinely expanded my operatic horizons. A winner.


The Stage

Philip Glass’ Akhnaten review
at the Coliseum, London – ‘mesmerising’

By George Hall
March 5, 2016

It was back in 1985 that ENO became the first British company to champion Philip Glass – a more controversial figure then than now – with the UK premiere of his Akhnaten, third instalment of a trilogy focusing on individuals whose ideas changed the course of history.

ENO has gone on to feature Glass’ works regularly, offering the European premiere of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 in 1988, Satyagraha in 2007 and the UK premiere of The Perfect American in 2013. In return, Glass has been good for ENO, his increasingly widely admired music drawing large audiences.

As with the hugely successful Satyagraha and The Perfect American, the new production of Akhnaten is created in collaboration with Phelim McDermott and Improbable. The visuals also make full use of the skills ensemble Gandini Juggling, whose founder and co-artistic director Sean Gandini choreographs their routines: the most spectacular of them generates a spontaneous round of applause during the music – something not often encountered in contemporary opera.

Akhnaten gives an account of the Egyptian Pharoah whose reign (around 1351-1334 BC) saw him alter the state religion, dismissing the numerous old gods and concentrating solely on the sun-god, Aten; at the beginning we see the funeral of his father, Amenhotep III, while immediately following his coronation the new king changes his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhnaten.

But his new religion fails to persuade the populace, and by the third act Akhnaten and his family are trying to ignore the protests beyond the palace walls. Eventually he is replaced, and we see modern students listening to a lecture on his now forgotten story.

The piece is an epic illustration of the transience of human achievements and the processes of historical change. But Glass’s opera is no dry history lesson; rather, in McDermott’s thrilling staging, contained within Tom Pye’s monumental sets and made magical by Kevin Pollard’s extraordinary costumes, the audience experiences a sequence of rituals that draws us into an act of contemplation as potent as it is fascinating.

Leading the cast is American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose ethereal tones embody the doomed Akhnaten. Emma Carrington sings the role of his elegant wife Nefertiti, while Rebecca Bottone suggests the grandeur of his concerned mother, Tye. As the Scribe, Zachary James gives the audience crucial information in English in an opera sung mostly in ancient Egyptian or Hebrew. Karen Kamensek conducts ENO’s expert orchestra a secure performance of the mesmerising score.

At the centre of the evening is ENO’s chorus, which has a great evening from both a musical and a dramatic point of view. One can hardly ignore the company’s desperate plight at this moment. At the time of writing, my understanding is that the chorus has put on hold its plan to absent itself from part of the performance on March 18 pending further talks with the management.

The bigger question is whether Arts Council England, having witnessed the widespread dismay caused by the results of their withdrawal of core funding, can now show strength rather than weakness by reconsidering their decision. The stature of ENO’s current work – including this outstanding show – demands no less.



Akhnaten by Philip Glass is Resplendent in London

By Saul Stucchi
March 8, 2016


A dirigere l’orchestra c’era Karen Kamensek, applauditissima al termine della prova insieme a tutto l’ensemble. La musica di Glass è risuonata pura, precisa e affascinante, trascinando gli spettatori in un vortice di storia e magia, …

Conducting the orchestra was Karen Kamensek, applauded at the finale together with the entire ensemble. Glass's music is pure and resounding, precise and charming, taking the audience into a whirlwind of history and magic…


Music OMH

Akhnaten @ Coliseum, London

By John-Pierre Joyce
March 6, 2016

Akhnaten (1984) is the last of Philip Glass’ three operas on the lives of great thinkers and visionaries. It is also the last one to be staged in London in recent years. The Barbican Theatre tackled Einstein on the Beach in 2012, while English National Opera mounted the Gandhi-themed Satyagraha in 2013. Akhnaten deals with the ascent and fall of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism and embraced the sole worship of Aten, the sun god, whose name he partly adopted. In many ways it is a tricky work to stage. Unlike the previous two operas in the Glass trilogy, it never really explores the motives behind Akhnaten’s religious conversion or his inner psychology. But it does give some insight into the mystical spirituality that inspired the pharaoh and his court.

Director Phelim McDermott achieved this through symbolic lighting and stage props. Projections of hieroglyph symbols and bold images of the sun affirmed the ancient Egyptian setting, contrasting with the modernist ‘Glassworks’-style set. Kevin Pollard’s costumes also included recognisable Egyptian features, but hinted too at past imperialism: Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother, resembled Britain’s Queen Mary; the High Priest was dressed as a mitred archbishop; and Horemhab and Aye looked respectively like a colonial-era general and civil service administrator. Assorted headdresses also suggested a wider world of tribal cultures. Modern touches were pointedly significant – like the surgeons attending to the mummification of Amenhotep III (and later to that of his son, Akhnaten). Cleverly suggestive, too, was the increasing evidence of Akhnaten’s sexual ambiguity.

Less effective was the frequent appearance of the Gandini Juggling troupe. As a metaphor for the ascent of the solar object and Akhnaten’s fascination with it, their on-stage games were a bit over-done and proved something of a distraction. At one point it all got a bit Cirque du Soleil, with sections of the audience breaking out into spontaneous applause. Even the chorus was roped into the ball-tossing fun, together with some hand-wiggling gestures.

Musically, Akhnaten lacks the variation of Einstein and Satyagraha. Apart from the rhythmic and instrumental vitality of the opening funeral scene, much of the score consists of lengthy, repeated vocal declamatory passages, usually in English, but sometimes in Akkadian and Hebrew (the lack of surtitles didn’t help much here). But skilful stage direction turned long scenes into something more beguiling – like the sensual duet between Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti, and the intimate domestic scene with the royal couple and their six daughters.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sustained his repeated vocal lines well enough, breaking into an intense hymn of praise to the Aten in the second act. Emma Carrington was a rich-toned Queen Nefertiti, complementing Rebecca Bottone’s bright-voiced Queen Tye – Akhnaten’s mother and possible co-ruler. In a purely speaking role, bass Zachary James emitted power and authority as the scribe who recounts aspects of Akhnaten’s reign and its eventual collapse.

The English National Opera chorus provided muscular and emotive singing, together with some busy stage work. Conductor Karen Kamensek sustained the orchestra’s momentum, never flagging, even in the longest passages. She and her players also found moments of individual beauty in Glass’ tightly controlled score.


Opera Britannia

Review: Glass—Akhnaten/English National Opera

By Carla Finesilver
March 5, 2016

The house was packed and excitement palpable on opening night of Phelim McDermott’s new production of Philip Glass’s iconic Akhnaten – the first fully-staged UK performance since the eighties, when the work was new. The two previous instalments of the Portrait Trilogy to be staged in London, Satyagraha in 2007 (then 2010) and Einstein on the Beach in 2012, opened to rave reviews (including mine) and wide artistic acclaim, not to mention record-breaking commercial success for modern opera. (I refuse to describe music composed over 30 years ago as ‘contemporary’!)

The Improbable theatre company are known for the wildly complex creativity of their visual presentation, and have set themselves high standards to live up to in previous productions; nevertheless, they continue to meet them. Akhnaten utilises a compartmentalised staging on three vertical tiers, with various movable subdivisions in the horizontal and foreground/background planes, giving a three-dimensional array of stage space in which to play. Frequently, several scenes occur concurrently, for example, in Act I, fast repetitive movement on the top layer (a troupe of jugglers styled on Ancient Egyptian deities), glacially slow movement in the lower foreground (the funeral rites of Pharaoh Amenhotep III), and the mid-speed shufflings and shuntings of the unquiet common people in between. This is, in fact, a perfect visual analogue for Glass’s classical minimalist compositional style, with its monolithic layered structure of fast repetition of arpeggios and scale patterns with glacially slow harmonic or timbral change beneath. It also made it impossible to keep track of everything that was going on: you focus on one interesting part for a while, then suddenly realise a whole new set of characters have entered, possibly clambering around on a large rolling wheel in marbled leotards. Somewhat overwhelming (in a good way) in Act I, the simple lines and colours of Act II (again, corresponding to changes in the musical structure) allowed a period of calm before the destabilisations of Act III.

14th century BCE Pharaoh Akhnaten (née Amenhotep IV) seems to have been an interesting character, considered strange in his own time, and the victim of both posthumous smear campaigns and attempts at expungement from history. While little hard evidence is available, he is thought by some Egyptologists to have been female and disguised as a male in order to take the throne (not unknown in that period), or possibly intersex, as well as probably bisexual, and reputedly engaged in an incestuous relationship with his mother. This telling of the story was not going for the actually-a-woman interpretation, as Anthony Roth Costanza (Akhnaten) emerged naked and clearly externally male, although later costumes were designed as deliberately gender-ambiguous. The coronation robe, for example, brought to mind Elizabeth I – if she had worn it open down the front and accessorised with a double crown topped with a giant jellybean, that is. (Aside: I would be considerably more positively-disposed toward contemporary royalty if they were all bald genderqueer alien-looking beauties with more than a little of the David Bowie about them, and all coronation ceremonies included appearing naked then being flipped upside down by a cadre of shiny ambulant mummies into a large pair of pants.) Less positively, Akhnaten was also a religious zealot who, on ascending the throne, demanded all his people immediately switch to his new religion. The story (and yes, this opera does actually have a linear narrative) centres on this religious reformation to monotheistic sun-god worship. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to let on that the people of Egypt were not entirely impressed at the destruction of their temples and banning of their favoured polytheistic traditions, and it did not end well for Akhnaten.

It is apt that so far I have not mentioned the singing, as the title role neither sings nor speaks until some way into Act I, floating silently through his father’s funeral and his own coronation. When Costanza finally opens his mouth, it is with a visceral, flexible countertenor that I initially thought too vibrato-laden and lacking the timbral stability I considered necessary for the music, but which subsequently settled (particularly in terms of blending with the always-accompanying trumpet) and grew on me swiftly to the point where I have difficulty imagining anyone better inhabiting the role. Two women form with him the central trio of characters. Mother Queen Tye was a soaring yet crisply-controlled Rebecca Bottone, while wife Nefertiti was sung with warm vibrancy by Emma Carrington, both of them with concentrated levels of intensity. The intermingling lines of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s Act II love duet were a particular musical highlight, as was their final trio. The secondary trio of male voices were also highly effective, and their sections provided a welcome change of sound whenever the physical, political world (in the form of James Cleverton’s military Horemhab, Clive Bayley’s adviser Aye, and Colin Judson’s priest of the old religion) intrudes on Akhnaten and family’s increasingly-insular spirituality. With most of the libretto in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, it fell to the Scribe (Zachary James) to narrate the events, spoken over musical underlay (a similar effect to the texts in Einstein). He did this in a declamatory, actorly manner, at the end rather impressively while carrying the dead Akhnaten cradled in his arms. (I am imagining a casting call specifying “must be able to deadlift countertenor and sustain for duration of monologue”.)

For an orchestra playing this type of score, the technical demands are considerable, and musically somewhat contradictory. Navigated and driven flawlessly by Karen Kamensek (currently MD of Hannover Staatstheater, and in her ENO debut), the musicians managed laser-cut robotic precision, yet with the necessary human warmth injected via timbre and sensitivity of dynamic phrasing. I was thinking of picking out individual wind soloists for compliment, but in fact they were all deserving. The ENO chorus were also on excellent vocal form, whether delivering polyrhythmic choral chanting while ominously hand-jiving with juggling balls and glowering at the out-of-touch royal family, or ethereal offstage harmonies floating up from the orchestra pit. They received one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night.

Lastly, of course, I must mention the balls. Balls, balls, flying everywhere (and I’m not referring to the Pharaoh’s). Not only is the preponderance of round objects appropriate for a piece of theatre on the subject of all-consuming worship of a spherical sky-god, but the earliest known archaeological records of ball juggling are from an 11th Dynasty Egyptian tomb painting. Normal-sized juggling balls were flung in delightfully precisely-patterned choreography by Sean Gandini’s company of dancing jugglers, larger bubble-like balls bounced around as the Atenist religion develops, and a huge glowing globe swelled to take up most of the stage for the stunning Hymn to the Sun. This was all highly entertaining, and worked well as an alternative visual iconography for the construction and deconstruction of the City of the Horizon of Aten.

What would I like to see in the future from ENO? I’d like to see the Portrait Trilogy of Einstein, Satyagraha and Akhnaten presented in London as a cycle on three consecutive nights (as the State Opera of South Australia did in 2014). Improbable? Twenty years ago we would have said that about a staged performance of any of the three individually (and particularly Einstein), but have been proved wrong with aplomb. Please make it happen.



Review: If You See One Philip Glass Opera, Make It This One

By Sam Smith
March 9, 2016

Composer Philip Glass, who wrote the soundtrack to The Hours, is recognised as one of the leading proponents of minimalism in the world today. He has written over twenty-five operas, and three of these form a trilogy that focus on pivotal figures in the fields of science, politics and religion respectively. Einstein on the Beach premiered in 1976, Satyagraha (about Mahatma Gandhi) followed in 1980, and the triptych was completed four years later with Akhnaten. This final opera appeared at English National Opera in 1985 and 1987, and now comes to the Coliseum following a thirty-year absence in a new production from Improbable director Phelim McDermott.

Glass’s operas can move some people to an almost hypnotic degree and leave others feeling quite cold. While there is no guarantee as to which state any individual will fall into, anyone who is currently wavering might do well to hit the Coliseum as there can surely be no better time to try his work. This is because the music in Akhnaten is more varied and accessible than in either Einstein on the Beach or Satyagraha, this production is very engaging and the singing is of a notably high standard.

The opera explores the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who renamed himself Akhnaten as he changed Egypt’s entire religion to worship the sun god, Aten. Although the story is told chronologically, the piece is more meditative than plot driven and different sections are presented in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew as well as English. This variety reflects the diversity of the texts, which include the Egyptian Book of the Dead, that are presented, but the programme, which includes full translations and synopsis, explains everything clearly. 

The opera is sumptuously presented through Tom Pye’s sets with activity sometimes occurring simultaneously on three levels. Occasionally, this can lead to visual overload, but more often there is a refinement to the effects that, when combined with the obvious attention to detail, create some arresting images. Actors frequently juggle with their actions complementing the minimalist music well, and the balls in themselves have significance. A huge sphere represents the sun but the smaller ones tossed in front of it could also be atoms, thus contrasting ancient and modern understanding concerning the basis of life.

Synergies between the past and present are also highlighted by seeing Kevin Pollard’s costumes cross eras. In fact, allusions to excavations coupled with the interest we show in Akhnaten today reveal how in a sense his aim to achieve immortality was realised. Conversely, the opera also reveals how short-lived this pharaoh’s dream was. On his death, the old religion was restored (under Tutankhamun) and the city he founded abandoned. In fact, we see a modern day lecturer boring his students by pointing out that everything from the city is now either missing, badly damaged or too far out to be worth the trek to see.

Karen Kamensek conducts superbly, while the singing is of an exceptionally high standard. Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten has a countertenor voice of such metallic brilliance and precision that his sound seems otherworldly, as befitting the god-like character he is portraying. His performance of Act Two’s Hymn to the Sun is sensational, while no less engaging is his duet with Emma Carrington’s Nefertiti. His countertenor works very well with her mezzo-soprano and the pair bring tension to the air as their long trailing robes are twisted around each other. The ENO chorus also contribute some excellent singing including in several passages where their voices are heard from offstage.


A Younger Theatre

Review: Akhnaten

By Manuel Muñoz
March 5, 2016

It has been 29 years since Akhnaten was revived at the Coliseum after its UK premiere in 1985. Widely considered one of Philip Glass’s finest works, and also the last of his trio of operas on characters that changed the world they lived in, expectations were high for this new production. It is directed by Improbable’s Phelim McDermott, who also directed Glass’s Satyagraha and The Perfect American for ENO. With a wonderful cast and an interesting – and at times magical – production, it is safe to say this Akhnaten is a glowing success.

The production, as the opera itself, mixes Ancient Egypt with the modern world, as if the story of this remarkable pharaoh is a haunting echo from the past. A multi-layered stage shows a mix of old and new, Egyptian symbolism and modern-day sensibility. The Skills Ensemble, choreographed by Sean Gandini, mixes juggling with the story – strange at first, but remarkably powerful when we realise it represents life and death and its unstable and changing balance. As the opera is constructed as a series of tableaux or separate scenes, the production intends to give a different flavour to each of them, creating powerful visual stills, remarkable costumes and slow-motion mysticism that, together with the never-changing rhythms, both entrance and enthral. On the other hand, it is true that the objective is not the portrayal of a realistic reconstruction of Egypt. The use of some actual symbols – hieroglyphs, the hawk-god Horus, language – and an aura of greatness and solemnity give the production a visually powerful and compelling element that complements Glass’s mesmerising music perfectly.

Akhnaten is a complex historical figure. Although we do know a good deal about his life and times, and about his decision to abolish the traditional Egyptian pantheon of gods and establishing Aton (the sun) as the only god, there are still many aspects that are not well-known at all. From his character to his physical appearance, it is always a matter of guesswork when it comes to portraying him in literature or on stage. The very conscious choice of a countertenor to play the part reflects some of the fascination Akhnaten exerts – on historians and the general public alike – when it comes to his purported ambiguous features and gender. This ambiguity is further stressed by a certain ‘feminine’ body shape – which we can see on sculptures and reliefs – that is well-exploited in this production through costumes. It is particularly between Akhnaten and Nefertiti that are fewer differences in costume, showing not only ambivalence but a unity that transcends feelings.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo takes the title role in what can only be described as an otherworldly performance. In a role that was written with Baroque singing in mind, Costanzo shines with a highly expressive legato, beautiful delicacy and a pure, eerily sound. Emma Carrington and Rebecca Bottone as Nefertiti and Queen Tye, respectively, match Costanzo with their beautiful sound. When singing together – like in the Window of Appearances scene – the three become one polyphonic sound that moves and soothes. The powerful love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti is a masterclass in balance and sound quality, carrying the melody with ease and soul.

James Cleverton (Horemhab), Clive Bayley (Aye) and Colin Judson (High Priest of Amon) are fantastic as representatives of the old religion, attacked by Akhnaten’s solar monotheism, taking their revenge in the end by precpitating the death of the pharaoh. The six daughters of Akhnaten are an effective and remarkable ensemble, physically attached to each other as one single body. However, special mentions must go to the ENO chorus, who give an outstanding performance with some rather powerful moments of sheer intensity; and to the ENO orchestra, conducted by Karen Kamensek. Hers is an example of committed conducting and absolute understanding of the complexity of Glass’s work, while being personal and expressive in her approach.

All the above makes for a transcendent evening, evoking a distant past and powerful images. With a stellar cast and a complex yet immensely rewarding production, this Akhnaten is more than an opera worth seeing: it is an experience worth living.


British Theatre Guide

Review: Akhnaten

By Louise Lewis
March 4, 2016

Phelim McDermott directs a new production of Akhnaten, the story of a radical Pharaoh. In an outstanding combination of musical prowess, exquisite design and arresting direction, ENO’s latest staging of Philip Glass opera is a jewel in its crown.

ENO is no stranger to this minimalist composer's work—Akhnaten was given its UK première at the Coliseum in 1985. It’s also not Phelim McDermott’s (director) and Improbable’s first outing at the Coliseum, having collaborated with the ENO on two other Glass operas, Satyagraha and The Perfect American.

It is the first time that they throw balls into the equation—literally. The Gandini Juggling Company joins the action, and this production worships all things spherical. Although I’m initially sceptical the juggling proves no weak gimmick—and can be most satisfyingly tied into the pulse of the score.

McDermott, always keen to play and develop ideas, has the group transform their balls into weapons to drive out the blasphemous old preachers. With another sleight of hand, they represent the sun, the collapse of a city, juggled from the floor; endless possibilities.

Designer Tom Pye embraces warm hues of amber, gold and bronze on which a three-storey playground is constructed. Kevin Pollard’s costumes appear plucked straight from the V&A, a display of glittering attention to detail in sumptuous fabrics.

This is a slow-moving piece; gently unravelling tableaux match the pace of the music. Not a traditional narrative opera, key ideas slowly develop in long scenes. With such visual splendour, these extended sections prove a delight rather than being tedious.

Under the very capable baton of Karen Kamensek, Glass’s music washes over you in a wave, this pulsing form which morphs so organically into defiant climaxes and sections of subtle grace. At times, making this thickly textured rhythmic music demands so much concentration from all involved that you too are are transfixed by the performers' focus. What seemed so trance-like has now gripped you and scarcely permitted you to breathe for great swathes of time. This is balanced with some achingly beautiful music.

Anthony Roth Constanza weaves a delicate web of sound in the Akhnaten’s Hymn to his new god. Despite the constant rhythmic motifs, Constanza’s vocal control and McDermott’s direction creates a stillness, a welcome counterpoint to the musical activity throughout the rest of the opera.

The other highlight is Nefertiti (Emma Carrington) and Akhnaten’s love duet, filled with anticipation and longing as they sensuously unwrap their long robes onstage. Making her ENO debut, Carrington shows off a voice with great warmth and richness of tone—hopefully we will see far more of this mezzo-soprano.

Since the uproar over chorus pay at ENO commenced, their onstage presence has seemed stronger and more magnificently sung than ever, and Akhnatan is no exception. The excellent ensemble work will all be lost on 18 March if the ENO cannot negotiate on the proposed wage cuts. Certainly tonight's performance advertised yet again the value of the ENO’s ensemble.


Country Life

Akhnaten at the London Coliseum

By Barbara Newman
March 9, 2016

High above the ground, a line of seated figures materialises from the shadows. Suddenly and very slowly the figures move, imprinting the rigid lines and angles of their bodies on the surrounding space like a stone frieze in action. Then they start to juggle, reenforcing the score’s intricate overlapping rhythms with the balls in their hands.

This mysterious ensemble opens Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten, revived at English National Opera after more than 30 years, and flows almost continuously through its three hours. The complicated narrative, pared to its essential elements, traces the birth, coronation, overthrow and death of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh who imposed a monotheistic state religion on Egypt in the 15th century B.C. Delivering words derived from original texts, Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti, his mother and daughters, priests and the people of Egypt, sing in Egyptian and Hebrew.

No one uses English except Akhnaten and the Scribe, who speaks without singing, and no surtitles are projected. So only the music and the meticulously choreographed staging allow us access the characters’ feelings and behaviour.

Articulating Glass’s irregular rhythms and tangled harmonies, often wordlessly, the singers walk and gesture in ceremonious slow motion, conjuring drama from our anticipation, and all the movement adds body to the repeated musical patterns, realising their minutely shifting tonalities in physical form.

The jugglers handle both small and large balls in the air or on the ground and toss Indian clubs into a symmetrical storm of excitement. They manipulate flexible wings, first in measured unison, then in a whirling flurry around Akhnaten. They slide silently into view on their backs, wriggling like inchworms, and crawl past the embalmed pharoah in the final scene as he drops one last ball among the others they propel past him, clearing the stage of lost civilizations.

It’s not inspired juggling, nothing flashy, but including them was an inspired decision that lends maximum effect to the minimalist score. Jugglers decorated Egyptian tombs where, a museum curator has explained, “round things were used to represent solar objects, birth and death.”

As for stagecraft, George Balanchine urged the public to “see the music and hear the dancing.” Amazingly, this production’s director, Phelim McDermott, the conductor Karen Kamensek, the skills ensemble choreographer Sean Gandini, and the exceptional cast enable us to do precisely that.


Seen and Heard International

Remarkable Staging of Glass’s Remarkable Akhnaten by ENO

By Colin Clarke
March 11, 2016

Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten has a special flavour all of its own amongst Glass’s operatic output (so far). Perhaps it is the absence of violins, giving the sound a bass-rich basis; perhaps it is that Glass’ characteristic repetitions have a ritualistic aspect that is entirely apposite to the religious practices of Ancient Egypt. One interesting angle on that was the use of jugglers (Gandini Juggling), predominantly on one of the three tiers of the set. Juggling has been identified with Ancient Egypt via found depictions, and one should note that the very shape of the ball reflects that of the sun on a microcosmic level; further, the repetitive-yet-varied nature of juggling itself (the ball repeatedly kept in the air, but the direction varying from time to time) seems perfectly in accord with the basic tenets of musical minimalism itself. Phelim McDermott’s production’s strength is its congruence with Glass’ musical processes in this opera, from Bruno Poet’s lighting (which seems to reflect the darker textures of the orchestra rather than the light from the Sun God more often than not, and quite rightly) through to Tom Pye’s sets, which seem to make maximal use of the Coliseum space.

Akhnaten is part of a trio of operas that celebrate individuals that have had a profound impact on the course of history: Satyagraha (on Gandhi, and memorably performed at ENO in November 2013) and Einstein on the Beach (its heavenly length last on display in the UK at the Barbican) are the other two. Arguably it was Akhnaten’s admittedly short-lived achievement that was the most significant, a melding of Egypt’s rampant polytheism into One God: here, the Sun God. Originally called Amenhotep (“Amen is pleased”, the same name as his father), Amenhoten IV changed his name to Akhnaten (“The Spirit of the Aten/Sun”) about five years into his reign. His influence lives on perhaps most strongly in the Rosicrucian Order (most commonly seen in its A.M.O.R.C. form), a group that traces its origins back to Thutmose III as founder, but which sees Akhnaten’s zeroing in on the one God as massively significant in planting this idea in history, this despite the re-emergence of polytheism following Akhnaten’s reign. Akhnaten is continuously associated not only with the sun but with a specific aspect: the sun’s rays, seen as radiating from his head and body.

Akhnaten himself was allegedly hermaphroditic: hence he is seen at one point in see-through material with breasts, and elsewhere as completely naked and very obviously fully male-equipped: somehow the use of a counter-tenor seems perfect for this part. Costumes are not exclusively of the time period: there seems to be an eccentric ex-general around, for example. Yet we are transported back across the millennia to an ancient era, the true nature of which we can only speculate. The chorus is vital to this piece (off-stage in the second act) and was in phenomenal voice on this occasion. As Akhnaten, counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanza, who has previously sung in The Indian Queen for ENO, seemed perfect for the role, his voice not only blessed with the requisite strength, but also of a decidedly otherworldly quality.

John Richardson’s excellent programme essay, “Exploring Akhnaten” points out that the vocal ranges of the roles of Akhnaten and his wife, Nefertiti, are broadly similar and often intertwine in the manner of vocal writing of the Renaissance and Baroque. And they do, to simply beautiful effect. Young mezzo Emma Carrington was a stunning Nefertiti, her voice supremely matched to Costanza’s. Soprano Rebecca Bottone made a welcome appearance as Queen Tye (Akhnaten’s mother), and the trio of Tye, Nefertiti and Akhnaten at the close of the first act, glorifying the sun, was simply remarkable and vastly musically satisfying. Neither was it the only ravishing ensemble of the evening.

Bass Zachary James, who had taken the role of Abraham Lincoln in the recent Perfect American, was the Scribe who got to deliver his lines in English (no surtitles, and much of the rest of the libretto is sung in Egyptian). Attired in suit and top hat, the ever-reliable Clive Bayley was solid as Aye, Nefertiti’s father; James Cleverton was a treat as the general Harembab. The daughters of Akhnaten (naming them individually feels a bit like naming the Valkyries one by one: onerous and never quite worth the effort) worked beautifully together as an ensemble.

Keeping it all under a tight rein was conductor Karen Kamensek, making a most laudable ENO debut. The orchestra clearly found her direction stimulating, as they were on top form throughout.

I was lucky enough to see Akhnaten last time round at ENO, in the 1980s, in the staging by David Freeman. This new staging resonates deeper, something perhaps shown best by the very end of the opera. Fast forward thousands of years, and a group of tourists is being taken round the ruins of the temple. In the 1980s this struck me as a crass miscalculation as they wandered around the set, caricatures of American touristic curiosity; in the present instance, the tour leader is seen more subtly in the right-hand corner of the stage, and is a more informed lecturer. Akhnaten is a much-excerpted opera, and deservedly so, from the Naxos orchestral excerpts reviewed by myself back in 2000 to the recent appearance of the Act 2 Scene 3 Dance for solo piano in an arrangement by P. Barnes as part of a “Trilogy Sonata” (where it shares space with excerpts from Satyagraha and Einstein) on Grand Piano GP691, where it is performed by Nicolas Horvath. The score is rich, the subject both thought-provoking and resonant on a very deep level. We’re a long way from the word of Disney (The Perfect American, reviewed by myself here), a testament perhaps to the true variety the operas of Philip Glass really can offer. A remarkable piece in a remarkable staging.


Broadway World

San Diego Opera Again Proves Itself Worthy of 'Must-See' Status

by Erica Miner
April 21, 2015

San Diego Opera has done it again. Last night's 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, featuring a display of operatic and symphonic talent rarely seen and heard on one stage, provided another joyful musical experience for performers and audience alike. In conjunction with the San Diego Symphony, which generously donated their usual concert venue for SDO's benefit, the cooperative effort was a Grand Succès: vocally, dramatically and musically.

It was an evening of celebratory firsts for SDO: the anniversary of their first 50 years in existence, their first concert performed together with SDS on the stage of Copley Symphony Hall, and the final offering of their first season as a reborn company.

The array of seven singing soloists sparkled so brightly with their vocal expertise and stage presence, that at times the hall seemed to vibrate from the sheer force of their cumulative talents. All of the numbers performed were hugely difficult, and were executed with skill and panache.

Perhaps the most luminous star of all was Charles Prestinari's chorus. Always a class act, they seem to outdo themselves with each successive production. This time, with a docket of noteworthy numbers one after another, they knocked the audience's shoes right off their feet. Starting with the difficult first high note the tenors sang in the opening (Bravi, tenors!) of the "Entrance of the Guests" from Wagner's Tannhauser, the ensemble sang as one instrument, presenting difficult choruses from Puccini's Tosca and Verdi's Nabucco and Aida with vocal consistency and power. Even the extremely quick tempi of conductor Karen Kamensek did not daunt these expert choral singers from producing a sound that was both forceful and beautifully rounded.

As to the soloists, theirs was a veritable constellation of stunning arias, duets and ensembles. American soprano Lise Lindstrom had the most strenuous job, with four major arias to perform: Dich, teure Halle from Tannhauser, In questa Reggia from Puccini's Turandot, Es gibt ein Reich from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, and Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Any one of these would have provided effective proof of Lindstrom's vocal proficiency; all four of them together comprised an agenda that would test the mettle of any soprano, and few would attempt such a demanding list. Lindstrom moved from one aria to another with apparent ease, showing her voice to its fullest capabilities in the Strauss.

From the moment he sang his first exquisite notes of his SDO debut in Bizet's duet, Au fond du Temple Saint from Les Pêcheurs de Perles, René Barbera's glorious tenor shimmered its way through the atmosphere of the hall and into the audience's hearts. His vocal beauty and ease and phenomenally consistent technique, reminiscent of the vocal assurance and comic flair of Pavarotti and the technical prowess and golden tones of Flórez, mesmerized listeners, whether in the sensuous Bizet or the always-challenging Ah! Mes amis... of Donizetti. In the latter, the celebrated nine High C's were a lock: effortless, formidable but not overwhelming. He made sure to sing the two verses on both stage right and left, providing equal listening opportunity to the entire house, and gave the impression that a tenth High C would present no problem whatsoever. One hopes not to have to wait too long to hear him in a full role at SDO.

Stephen Powell always nails whatever musical challenge he attempts. An imposing Tonio in SDO's Pagliacci last season, Powell delivered a stunning performance as Baron Scarpia in the Te Deum from Tosca, and provided perfect balance to Barbera in the Bizet duet, with a gorgeous sound and potent presence that equaled Barbera's in every way. In this they were perfectly matched vocally and dramatically, as they also were comically in the duet, All' idea dí quel metallo, from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Soprano Emily Magee gave a stunning first impression in her rendering of Tosca's signature aria Vissi d'arte. The unusual timbre and range of her powerful, sensuous voice was a perfect fit vocally and dramatically for the tragic 19th century diva, and even more so in the encore final ensemble (see last paragraph).

Equally lush was Marianne Cornetti's voice in the mezzo-soprano tour de force aria from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila, presented to its best advantage in its lower and middle range. She showed great dramatic flair in the duet from Verdi's Don Carlo, with soprano Erica Austin, who displayed a youthful, sparkling and captivating voice that one would very much like to hear more of in the future.

Bass Reinhard Hagen, who played the Commendatore in the company's recent Don Giovanni, is a familiar and much-admired presence at SDO. His passionate rendering of the aria Lyubvi fse vozrastï pokornï from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin gave the audience a welcome demonstration of his impressively deep low notes, rendered capably and with profound feeling.

Another SDO favorite, bass-baritone Scott Sikon, provided listeners the pleasurable opportunity to hear him more extensively than usual in the ever popular Non più andrai from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro.

Karen Kamensek conducted with her usual command and authority, showing her capabilities especially effectively in the French repertoire.

The evening ended not only in Gloria all'Egitto ad Iside but also in triumph for San Diego Opera. As an added symbol of the company's determination and grit, the audience was regaled with an encore of the final ensemble from Bernstein's Candide, which aptly pointed out SDO's hopes, dreams, and thus-far accomplishments with its exhortations to "Build our house and chop our wood" and "Make our garden grow." With the impending and much anticipated arrival of new General Director David Bennett.


Union Tribune San Diego

Joy abounds at opera's 50th concert

By Pam Kragen
April 19, 2015

A shot from the auditorium of tenor Rene Barbera and baritone Stephen Powell performing a duet from "The Barber of Seville" at San Diego Opera's 50th anniversary concert Saturday night.
A shot from the auditorium of tenor Rene Barbera and baritone Stephen Powell performing a duet from "The Barber of Seville" at San Diego Opera's 50th anniversary concert Saturday night.

Many of the arias and choral numbers performed Saturday night at San Diego Opera’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert had a triumphal theme, but it was the surprise encore that left many in the near-capacity audience at Jacobs Music Center wiping away tears.

“Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide,” is about an eternal optimist’s plan to cultivate and rebuild despite repeated setbacks. “We’ll do the best we know/We’ll build our house and chop our wood/and make our garden grow.”

It’s a symbolic tribute to the company, which — if not for the passion and never-say-die efforts of a few board members, employees and the opera-loving public — might never have reached its 50th year. Last year, former board members voted to close the struggling company after its final performance on April 13, 2014, but a donor campaign, creative reimagining and major budget cuts saved the day.

One of those cost-saving measures was the cancellation of this season’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” which was replaced, in part, with this weekend’s concerts featuring that opera’s pre-booked conductor, Karen Kamensek, and its principal singers, among others. San Diego Opera’s old marketing slogan was “we make music worth seeing,” but few in Saturday’s enthusiastic crowd seemed to mind the absence of costumes and scenery. And the acoustics in the more-intimate symphony hall are far better than in the opera’s usual home space, the cavernous San Diego Civic Theatre.

The three-hour concert, which will be presented again at 2 p.m. today, featured plenty of Wagner and other German composers, but it also offered a greatest hits of Verdi, Mozart and Rossini.

The evening’s most thrilling moments were delivered in Italian in the company debut of fast-rising, Texas-born bel canto tenor René Barbera, whose charm and effortless string of high Cs for Luciano Pavarotti’s breakthrough number “Ah! mes amis” from “The Daughter of the Regiment” elicited roars of excitement. And his Figaro/Almaviva duet from “The Barber of Seville” with powerhouse baritone Stephen Powell was a second-act highlight. Here’s to hoping another San Diego Opera visit is in his future.

Dramatic soprano Lise Lindstrom showed great range with a steely “In questa reggia” from “Turandot” to a restrained, tender “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde.” Soprano Emily Magee’s creamy vocals found every emotional color in “Tosca’s” “Vissi d’arte” and Korngold’s “Glück das mir verblieb.”

As the evil Scarpia, Powell anchored as spine-tingling “Te Deum” from “Tosca,” complete with the San Diego Opera Chorus, San Diego Symphony and the historic hall’s restored pipe organ.

Mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti shined with Eboli’s stirring “Nei giardin del bello” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Bass Reinhard Hagen solidly interpreted arias in Russian from “Eugene Onegin” and German from “The Magic Flute.”

And bass-baritone Scott Sikon delighted with a Figaro aria. The chorus, directed by Charles F. Prestinari, also delivered flawless performances from Verdi’s “Aida” and “Nabucco.”

This weekend’s concerts celebrate an achievement that seemed impossible a year ago, and their reimagined structure and location are a sign of what’s to come in the new San Diego Opera’s next half-century.

San Diego Opera’s new general director David Bennett arrives on June 15. The former director of Gotham Chamber Opera in New York is known for staging little-known operas in nontraditional venues. The 51st season, announced last month, will include two company chestnuts, “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly” along with the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Great Scott,” a co-production with Dallas Opera with a story about an opera company struggling to survive in contemporary, football-obsessed America. There will also be benefit concerts by company veterans Ferruccio Furlanetto and Patricia Racette.


San Jose Mercury News

Review: Patricia Racette – stunning ‘Susannah’ at San Francisco Opera

By Georgia Rowe
September 8, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO -- "Susannah" is one of those great American operas that many Americans still have never seen. Carlisle Floyd composed it in 1955, and although it's received more than 800 performances since then, San Francisco Opera had never performed it until Saturday night.

Based on the biblical Apocrypha story of Susanna and the Elders -- one that Handel, in the mid-18th century, incorporated in one of his large-scale oratorios -- Floyd's work sets the action in rural Tennessee's New Hope Valley. It's a place of church socials, itinerant preachers and revival meetings. By reimagining this chilling tale of an innocent girl wrongly accused, Floyd made it a distinctly American drama.

"Susannah" begins with the 18-year-old title character already an outsider. Her parents have died, and she has been raised by her alcoholic brother, Sam. At a local dance, her neighbors call her a "shameless wench." They're certain she will come to no good.

The newcomer at the dance is the Rev. Olin Blitch, who has come to town to cast out sin, save souls and build a faithful flock. Like every other man present, he has his eye on the vivacious Susannah.

Saturday's powerful opening performance at War Memorial Opera House had a lot going for it. Topping the list is soprano Patricia Racette, who sings the title role with the same vocal allure and dramatic fervor she brings to her performances in the core Italian repertoire.
Consider that Racette, who marks her 25th anniversary with San Francisco Opera this season, has sung more than 30 roles with the company, including recent powerhouse performances in "Mefistofele," "Showboat" and the title roles of "Madama Butterfly" and "Dolores Claiborne." With this "Susannah" -- a new production directed by Michael Cavanagh, with superb musical direction by conductor Karen Kamensek -- Racette adds another impressive role to the list.

Floyd, who set the score to his own libretto, conjures the story in forthright English, highlighting the conflict between Susannah's naive yearnings and the mob mentality coalescing in Blitch's newly formed congregation. His score -- an elegant mix of unadorned melodies, folk songs, hymns and dances -- is just as effective.

Cavanagh directed the opera with plenty of forward momentum on Erhard Rom's set of weathered woods, with hills, streams, verdant forests and night skies projected as backdrops. Gary Marder's lighting and Michael Yeargan's rustic costumes added to the atmosphere.

Racette gave a fully committed performance, letting Susannah's shock and shame come to the surface gradually as the performance progressed. As always, she sang with focused power and lyrical beauty; her arias "Ain't it a pretty night" and "The trees in the mountains are cold and bare" were especially touching.

The other standout was tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who sang the role of Sam with rich tone and boundless vitality. Bass Raymond Aceto made a resonant, darkly unctuous Blitch, and tenor James Kryshak was an eloquent Little Bat. As Mrs. McLean, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook led a pack of townswomen, sung by Erin Johnson, Jacqueline Piccolino and Suzanne Hendrix. The elders -- Dale Travis as McLean, Joel Sorenson as Hayes, A.J. Glueckert as Gleaton and Timothy Mix as Ott -- made fine contributions. Ian Robertson's chorus sang with heft and vigor, and Kamensek, making her San Francisco Opera debut, conducted a dynamic orchestral performance.

Floyd, who came onstage to cheers at the end of Saturday's performance, composed "Susannah" in the waning days of the McCarthy era's witch hunts, and the opera's message of innocence destroyed by fear and hypocrisy rings true today. It's a timeless tale, something the new production drives home in every particular.


SF Gate

Opera Review: ‘Susannah’ a marvel too often overlooked

By Joshua Kosman
September 7, 2014

Religious hypocrisy, to our great sorrow, doesn't change very dramatically over the millennia. The same themes that run through the ancient tales - lust for power, fear of female sexuality, the malleability of crowds - can be seen in any mega-church today, and they inform Carlisle Floyd's potent 1955 opera "Susannah," which arrived at the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday night draped in glory.

This bleak and brilliant production marked the first time any of Floyd's operas have been offered as part of the San Francisco Opera's regular season, and the only possible response was, "What on Earth has taken so long?" The composer's first mature opera, and still his best known, is a small marvel of ferocity and compassion, and Saturday's performance - with the indomitable soprano Patricia Racette in the title role - made a superb case for it.

To call "Susannah" small is a testament to its scale and efficiency rather than its emotional impact. Floyd's piece runs scarcely over two hours, but it packs enough moral indignation and theatrical fervor for a piece twice its length.

Darker treatment
In writing his own libretto, Floyd drew on the story of Susanna and the Elders from the biblical Apocrypha, about a young woman who bathes naked under the unsuspected gaze of two creepy old lechers (Thomas Hart Benton's evocative painting of the scene, which hangs in the de Young Museum, adorns the cover of the Opera's program book).

Yet that story is only the seed of Floyd's opera, which is set amid the square dances and revival meetings of rural Tennessee. His treatment is far darker and more troubling, and his plainspoken libretto and tuneful, evocative score set up the essential elements of the drama with just a few deft strokes.

These include the contrast between Susannah's free-spirited generosity and the pinched, judgmental demeanor of the townspeople (in place of the Bible's two elders, Floyd saddles poor Susannah with a gang of four). The relationship between Susannah and her brother Sam is delineated crisply, as is the fatal charisma and almost-but-not-quite thorough villainy of the itinerant preacher the Rev. Olin Blitch.

Complex vision
Opera lovers are apt to have encountered pieces of the opera before - Susannah's Act 1 aria "Ain't it a pretty night," with its ardent, arching vocal leaps, is a standard excerpt for sopranos, as is the beautiful folk song she sings to console herself in Act 2. Yet to hear this music in context is to understand those selections anew. The allure of Floyd's vocal writing is unmistakable, but it always serves to undergird a rich and complex moral vision.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the climactic scene of Blitch's tent meeting, in which he exhorts the congregation first to cast out their own sins - and then to cast out the putative sinner in their midst. Over the roiling phrases of a communal hymn, Blitch unleashes a sermon that escalates in rhetorical force; it's easy to see through the doublespeak, but not so easy to deny its persuasive power.

All the musical and dramatic virtues of the score were splendidly addressed in Saturday's taut and expressive performance (with the company's welcome new 7:30 curtain time in place for all evening operas, "Susannah" gets patrons home in time for an early bedtime, or perhaps a nightcap). Debuting conductor Karen Kamensek led a sinewy account, drawing richly colored playing from the Opera Orchestra - especially during the work's foreboding prologue - and letting the speech-like rhythms of the score register lightly but firmly.

Director Michael Cavanagh's production moves the action back from the 1950s to the 1930s, with some WPA-style photographs to set the scene and a stark, splintery set by Erhard Rom to convey something of the townspeople's hardscrabble life.

Racette's impressive depiction of Susannah drew on the very qualities that have made so many of her performances here invaluable over the years - vocal clarity and robustness, emotional transparency, and especially the ability to blend tender lyricism and vigor into a single composite. Her account of "Ain't it a pretty night" had all the sweetness and lucidity it needed, as well as a surging impetuosity that hinted at Susannah's thwarted ambitions.

Brandon Jovanovich brought his exquisite, clarion tenor and theatrical appeal to the role of Sam, in a performance that conveyed both the fecklessness and inner strength of the character (local operagoers with longish memories may recall him singing this role in 2002 with Walnut Creek's Festival Opera). And as Blitch, bass Raymond Aceto gave his finest San Francisco performance yet, a heady blend of vocal prowess and anguished moralism.

The rest of the cast was just as fine, with tenor James Kryshak making a vivid, sweet-toned company debut as Little Bat, the dim-witted teenager whose hormones keep him in Susannah's orbit, and company stalwarts Dale Travis and Catherine Cook as his parents, leaders in the town's bluenose brigade. Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus sang arrestingly as the townspeople.

Uphill climb
"Susannah" is by some reckonings the most widely performed American opera, but that status is sustained by smaller companies and college music departments; the piece still faces an inexplicably uphill climb when it comes to major companies. It has been done in San Francisco as part of the old Spring Opera and Western Opera Theater offshoots, but never before as part of the regular season.

This staging - for which the 88-year-old composer was on hand on opening night to acknowledge the exuberant applause - owes something to Floyd's long friendship with General Director David Gockley, and it's a welcome end to an unjust drought.

But there is more still to be done. Floyd's catalog includes other works of comparable beauty and heft, including "Of Mice and Men," and the irresistible "Cold Sassy Tree," which Gockley commissioned for the Houston Grand Opera and premiered there in 2000. The current magnificent account of "Susannah" only whets the appetite for more.


San Francisco Classical Voice

Review: Racette Soars in Resonant Susannah

By Steven Winn
September 6, 2014

The Druid priests and priestesses of San Francisco Opera’s season-opening Norma gave way to a sanctimonious Christian preacher and his 1930s Tennessee flock with the long-overdue company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah on Saturday night. The two operas offered back-to-back depictions of religion’s vice grip on the faithful, an ominously timely topic in 2014.

In Floyd’s American tragedy, based on the Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, the believers’ power bears down on an exuberant 19-year-old (Patricia Racette) who is caught bathing nude, by a group of outraged elders who take a long look, in the creek near her house one day. Abused by the townsfolk and then more deeply by the toxic and repellently named Rev. Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto), Susannah sinks into depression and despair and finally retreats into a broken, woman-against-the-world defiance.

Carlisle’s widely performed 1958 work is writ large in every sense. With a score that draws on Appalachian folk tunes and church hymns, soars into rapturous lyricism and underlines evil in clearly drawn thick lines, Susannah may well strike some listeners as naive, quaint or simplistic. The characters, in the composer’s libretto, are crafted with forthright strokes. There’s a town drunk, a half-idiot boy, a billboard-scale hypocrite and all those God-fearing, life-loathing residents of (cue the irony) New Hope Valley, Tennessee. The local-color dialogue, both sung and spoken, can sound self-consciously “regional” at times.

Check whatever resistance you might have to all this at the door. In a beautifully mounted production that sets off another great performance by the beloved soprano Racette, Susannah offers an ardent, anguished, and moving experience.

Affirmation of that comes early on. Home from a square dance where the cut of her bright blue dress and the liveliness of her step has earned disapproving notice from the town gossips, Susannah casts her gaze to the night sky. “Ain’t it a pretty night?” she muses. On a gorgeously stark set (by Erhard Rom), wonderfully limned by Gary Marder’s lighting and ravishing projections, the stars gleam, in Susannah eyes, as diamonds stitched into a velvet blanket.

The wonder of the scene is the way the heroine’s mind wanders not just to the heavens but to an earthly paradise “just like you see in the mail order catalogues.” As Carlisle’s melody soars achingly, you feel both Susannah’s aspiration and her entrapment, the reach of her dreams and the confining boundaries of those beautiful deep purple Tennessee mountains. When her alcoholic brother, Sam, appears (a firm-voiced and tender performance by tenor Brandon Jovanovich), Susannah begs him to sing a favorite song. Their mutual delight is both infectious and sad, as ostracized brother and sister collapse under a sky that’s begun to lose its luster.

Director Michael Cavanagh and his design team create one striking and often subtle effect after another. Tormented by his own failings, Rev. Blitch stares up at a glaring white cross on the wall, then watches in bafflement as the projected image of the cross slowly vanishes on the floor at his feet. His path of righteousness is lost. Marder’s front lighting of a revival meeting projects the flickering, black-ghost shadows of the faithful on the wall. Michael Yeargan’s fine period costumes suddenly look like stiff confinement under this cold revealing light.

Racette was the shining center of it all. It might take some suspension of disbelief to buy a singer nearing 50 as a teenager in such a naturalistic piece, but she inhabited the role at the opening in a total, transformative way. Gamboling along a rocky downstage path with her friend Little Bat (an expert, twitchy performance by tenor and company newcomer James Kryshak), she bubbled over with a pure love of life. Racette’s Susannah grew more faceted throughout, from her heartsick account of the aria “The trees on the mountain” to her hardening resolve at the end. Aceto, whose bass baritone lacked heft on opening night, acted his crucial scene with Racette with oily precision.

Susannah lags some after intermission, as the crisp short scenes of the first act give way to a more deliberate and deliberative working out of the inevitable. Floyd’s tendency to illustrate and track every detail, from the shimmering water in the fated creek to the tumescent pulse beat of lust, wears a bit. That said, conductor Karen Kamensek, in her San Francisco Opera debut, elicited a range of bright and richly shaded orchestral color.

Whatever one’s misgivings about it may be, Susannah matters. The composer, who was in attendance on opening night and received a warm ovation when he came onstage during the curtain calls, has written a work with enduring resonance about Americans’ suspicion of their neighbors. At the time of its premiere in the late 1950s, the opera was viewed in the context of the McCarthyite witch hunt for Communists. Today it summons thoughts of how immigrants and other “outsiders” are vilified and feared.

San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley has long been a Carlisle Floyd champion. His company has done this affecting, deeply felt work proud with this earnest, embracing production.


San Jose Mercury News

Review: Nakamatsu and Rach 3, together again in San Jose, in a brilliant partnership

By Richard Scheinin
May 17, 2014

In 1997, a 28-year-old pianist without much of a reputation -- he was a high school German teacher in Mountain View -- moved to the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. With conductor James Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, he played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

He won the gold medal, and a career was born.

Jon Nakamatsu is performing Rachmaninoff's colossal work with Symphony Silicon Valley at the California Theatre this weekend, and you should go. Friday's performance -- the first of three -- was electric.

A San Jose native who still lives in the South Bay, the pianist is a hometown hero whose local performances tend to be charged events. But this reviewer wasn't prepared for the "Rach 3 Unbound" happening that engulfed the theater. Unleashing waves of powerful energy in tandem with the 72-piece orchestra, Nakamatsu played with clarity and elegance -- a performance to satisfy aficionados and neophytes alike, and probably even people who hate Rachmaninoff.

A pianist himself, Rachmaninoff composed the work in 1909, practicing its outlandishly difficult solo part on a dummy keyboard during a cross-Atlantic journey to New York. There he debuted the concerto with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch and then with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler.

While it is a finger-busting piano showcase, the concerto also is an example of consummate orchestral workmanship, exacting in the ways it continually replenishes, varies and reintegrates its flammable materials. Conductor Karen Kamensek, making her debut this weekend with the orchestra, showed herself to be a dynamic and exacting leader: The countless delicate and fleeting utterances in the violins or double basses, horns or winds were tailored to surround, echo and underscore Nakamatsu's own streaming statements.

The pianist's 40-minute performance was one of stamina, for sure, though he created the illusion of utter ease.

From his opening bars -- following that pulsing moment of expectancy in the orchestra -- his playing flowed and sang, thanks to his vividly voiced chords, his tapered phrasing and articulation. He literally played thousands of notes -- from memory, of course -- and there was the sense of being able to hear each and every one of them, whether he was in the spotlight (as in the first movement's exciting cadenza) or blending with and accompanying the orchestra.

The Adagio floated through moments that were like a collective sigh for soloist and orchestra, as well as passages of cross-handed speed-racing from Nakamatsu that kept this listener at the edge of his seat. Amid the orchestra's mounting and rhapsodic harmonies -- templates for Gershwin -- Nakamatsu uncorked fizzy champagne streams, churning toccata ornamentations and galloping syncopations, as well as double-barreled chording up and down the keyboard. One might say he laid it on thick, but -- what the heck -- it's Rachmaninoff.

There was one more explosion: the roar of the crowd, as it jumped to its feet. After his third set of bows, Nakamatsu played an encore, Schumann's "Widmung," as arranged for piano by Liszt. More elegance. More song.

And lest I forget, the program began with a performance of Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, as orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg.

One could see the very shape of the music in Kamensek's gestures, though the orchestra was not quite "there" yet, especially in the two inner movements, where the sectional interplay grew gnarly. Still, there was much to enjoy. Young Brahms was a melody machine, and there were impressive cameos by members of the orchestra, notably from concertmaster Robin Mayforth and principal clarinet Michael Corner.

The weekend's additional performances should bring Schoenberg's dense score into better focus. At Friday's performance, the finale was best. Taken at a clip, its Hungarian-style dances sounded great. They crackled.


San Jose Mercury News

Review: Symphony Silicon Valley's sparkling season opener

By Richard Scheinin
September 28, 2014

SAN JOSE -- Opening its 13th season, Symphony Silicon Valley took a trip with Hector Berlioz, that composer of delicious brews -- of fantastical reveries and rustic dances, of strange dramatic narratives. His big pieces are said to depict the heroes of various journeys, but each time, really, the hero is Berlioz, a dreamer and a visionary.

His "Harold in Italy" isn't quite a symphony and isn't quite a concerto, though it has a considerable solo part -- rhapsodic, wandering, observing -- for viola. Saturday at the California Theatre, Patricia Whaley -- the orchestra's principal violist -- was the effecting soloist for a performance of "Harold" that struck just about all the right chords: tender, enigmatic, charmed, neurotic and, well, trippy.

Guest conductor Karen Kamensek was the impelling guide for "Harold," which was commissioned from Berlioz in 1834 by Niccolò Paganini. As it turned out, he never performed the piece; its solo part was too reflective and restful for Paganini, who sought fireworks, not subtlety.

As much as it is said to follow the journey of a Romantic hero -- the Harold of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," a poem by Lord Byron -- "Harold in Italy" also was inspired by the composer's own wanderings by foot through the central Italian region of Abruzzi. Over the course of the work, we "see" Harold/Hector in the mountains, or observing a pilgrims' march and, later, a lover's serenade. Stumbling upon a group of brigands, the hero witnesses an intoxicated orgy.

This narrative threaded through Saturday's performance, as in the opening movement ("Harold aux montagnes") when Whaley first stated the work's "Harold theme," the motto or idée fixe that returns again and again. Accompanied by clarinet and harp, Whaley's rendering of the theme was lovely; it emerged as a tender dream of a melody, a true reverie. One could imagine the wanderer, quietly giddy amid the mountain mists.
As the performance continued, Whaley's tone was sometimes sinewy, sometimes golden and round. There were some moments -- as in the "Serenade" (the third movement) -- when one wished for her to play out more forcefully. But she seemed to have decided that her Harold was fundamentally a dreamer.

Meanwhile, there was Kamensek, who made her debut commandingly with this orchestra last May in a program that featured pianist Jon Nakamatsu. Earlier this month, she completed a run at San Francisco Opera, where she conducted Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah." And over the weekend, here she was again at the California Theatre.
While leading a stately tempo for the "Marche des pélerins" ("March of the Pilgrims"), she incited the strings to a strikingly rich and earthy performance. The remote French countryside where Berlioz spent his childhood -- within sight of the Alps -- somehow always lives on inside his music; Kamensek made this clear in the hearty dance that opens the "Serenade." The "Orgie de brigands" kept acquiring momentum, climaxing with a clattering yet controlled tumult.

Billed as "An Italian Tour," the program (which repeat Sunday) opened with Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances," Suite No. 2, from 1923, in which the composer re-imagines courtly dances of earlier centuries. Saturday, its second movement ("Danza rustica") was especially charming. Its tick-tock rhythms took on a lively swing, fed by the double basses and harpsichord.

Respighi gave way to Verdi, whose "La Peregrina" (from 1867) was composed as a ballet sequence for "Don Carlos," though it was eliminated from the opera during the composer's revisions. Infrequently performed, it proved to be a showcase for Symphony Silicon Valley.

Concertmaster Robin Mayforth took full advantage of her solo turn, which was sturdy and sweetly lyric, too. There was a sort of "en pointe" dance for clarinet and flute that sparkled. So did a number of the orchestral tuttis, especially those featuring a full array of brass -- classy playing by the section, straight down to the tuba. And this crisp, spirited performance popped like a champagne bottle at its conclusion; like a good short story writer, Kamensek understands the value of a strong ending.