Arts: Look on my work ye mighty and despair

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The Independent Culture
TWO YEARS ago the School of Music of Bath College of Higher Education, together with students from Frome Community College, put on a UK premiere performance of Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha. It was a remarkable production of a difficult piece, boldly staged and beautifully sung and played.

This year the same institution, now called Bath Spa University College, has turned the page to a UK regional premiere of the final work in Glass's "Portrait" trilogy of operas, a series that began with the celebrated Einstein on the Beach in 1975.

Akhnaten, first produced in Stuttgart in 1984, with the text of the libretto co-authored by Glass with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel and Richard Riddell, proves more recalcitrant than Satyagraha. The 14th-century-BC pharaoh of the title, a fragment of whose image could be seen in the great Africa; the Art of a Continent exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1995, remains frustratingly fragmentary throughout. Although the narrative - such as it is - has much attendant pomp and circumstance, there's so little action that it makes those plays by Racine on an antique theme look like Die Hard in comparison.

While there are enough parts in the orchestra, chorus and acting corps to justify a college production, what you in fact do with Akhnaten - given the lack of a Royal Opera House budget - must be a serious problem. Even the music, expertly directed by Roger Heaton, fails to supply a convincing answer. By the early Eighties Philip Glass was recycling what some might say was an already over-stretched resource, and as the eddies and nausea- inducing spirals of his style repeat and repeat, you begin to wish that the score came in a Reader's Digest condensed version. You could lop two hours off the running time and not lose any music you hadn't heard before.

Given the opera's insistence on stasis, with hieratic gestures replacing more usual means of expression, the director, Richard Studer, makes what he can of video projections as a source of much-needed animation. Comprising a series of short films made by students to fit into each of the three acts, the projections are often excellent, but lack the final polish that more time at the editing suite might have allowed.

On the few occasions when the score provided the high-art equivalent of a big production number, everything suddenly came alive, and the music was punched out in bold, brassy phrases (with some excellent tuba parping from Rhodri Griffiths), that showed off the impressive talents of the orchestra. But after three-and-a-half hours (including two intervals), you were very happy to flee Egypt at last. That said, the bravery of the endeavour can only be applauded.

Phil Johnson

`Akhnaten' continues at the Michael Tippett Centre, Bath Spa University College, until Saturday. Booking: 01225 875638