Akhnaten - Sing Like an Egyptian

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, photo @ Karen Almond
The Met company premiere of Philip Glass's Akhnaten is generally considered to the one of the Events of the Season (the other was Porgy and Bess). Performances are sold out, the opening night got rave reviews, and so despite lingering pain from an ankle injury, I trudged to Lincoln Center.  I had very high expectations.

Akhnaten (1984) is the last opera of Philip Glass's "Portrait" trilogy. The others are Satyagraha (about Mahatma Gandhi) and Einstein on the Beach (about, well, Einstein). Akhnaten in the14th century B.C.E. upended the ancient Egyptian religious system for a monotheistic religion that focused on the sun-god "Aten." For the libretto of Akhnaten Glass drew upon primary sources from the Amarna period. He even insisted on presenting most of the opera in ancient Egyptian with no surtitles.

Akhnaten, photo @ Karen Almond
Glass's decision to use only historical records for his libretto means that the opera does not have the wild inaccuracies of most operas based upon real-life figures. But because the historical record of the Amarna period of ancient Egypt is so fragmented this "portrait" of Akhnaten is opaque. At the end of the opera, you haven't learned anything about him. I kept thinking of what a more skilled librettist might have done.  Akhnaten's determination to overhaul the old systems suggests a person of extreme singlemindedness and (maybe???) narcissism. Glass's Akhnaten is a museum figure.

Glass's compositional style relies on those famous repetitive arpeggios that in orchestral works are hypnotic. But for an opera, this music is overly cerebral. As a result, Glass's opera might have historical veracity but not much emotional truth. As a comparison almost every plot point of Verdi's Don Carlo was fictitious. Yet the opera rings with emotional truth. When Philip II laments the lack of love in his life, Verdi's music hits you straight in the solar plexus.

Philip McDermott's production does its best to create arresting stage pictures that offset the static nature of the opera. The first act direction was the best. Amenhotep III's body is slowly mummified as the spirit of Amenhotep III narrates the historical events. Zachary James as Amenhotep III uses his extreme height and sonorous baritone speaking voice to convey authority as the narrator throughout the opera. Akhaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo) himself is "removed" from a mummy case and emerges totally nude. He looks young and vulnerable, a boy king. He slowly walks down the steps, dons an elaborate golden gown, and in his very first words as Egypt's new ruler completely upends Egypt's religious system.

The jugglers, photo @ Karen Almond
A clever touch was to have a skilled ensemble of jugglers appear throughout this opera. They were fun to watch -- even their dropped balls elicited laughs from the audience. It was a musical choice too: their movement mirrored the up-down-up-down sounds of Glass's arpeggios. Juggling was an ancient Egyptian pastime so the inclusion of the jugglers has historical veracity as well. In act two the scaffolding finally opens up to a projection of the sun disk and jugglers form a silhouette around the "sun." It's a stunning tableau (see right).

But McDermott can't offset the longueurs of the third act, in which the fall of Akhnaten is followed by a weird modern-day interlude where a history professor lectures a class about the importance of Akhnaten as the founder of one of the first monotheistic religions. By the time we get to the beautiful final trio with Akhaten, Tiye and Nefertiti interested had flagged considerably.

Zachary James, photo @ Karen Almond
Choreographer Sean Gandini devised a series of slow, stylized movements for the principal characters that were effective in suggesting a mythical space. Kevin Pollard's costumes were hit and miss. This is one time I wish the production used more primary sources as the costumes didn't have the simple aesthetics of the clothes depicted in ancient Egyptian murals.

The musical performance was led by the indomitable Met chorus, who blended into Glass's dense orchestral writing with astonishing seamlessness. Bravo. Conductor Karen Kamensik often lost the momentum and propulsion so needed to keep up the energy as let's face it, Glass's music can be repetitive to the point of numbness.

Bridges and Costanzo, photo @ Karen Almond
The vocal performances were mostly good. J'nai Bridges as Nefertiti had a striking mezzo-soprano that projected over the large orchestra and sounded warm and sensuous. Disella Lárusdóttir as Akhnaten's mother Queen Tiye had a celestial high soprano. There was an ensemble of six women (Akhnaten's daughters) whose voices blended harmonically.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhaten has received a lot of attention for the physical preparations he went through for this role. He was waxed head to toe. He must also appear stark naked. Costanzo certainly works hard and that's to be applauded.

But the minute he opens his mouth to sing at the end of Act One one realizes that his voice is too weak for the role. He has an impressive upper register but no lower register to speak of and under pressure, the voice turns squeaky and wobbly. This was the most intrusive in the second act, which is the most conventionally operatic section of the opera. There is a beautiful love duet between Akhaten and Nefertiti and Akhnaten's Hymn to the Sun which we know is important because it's sung in English (!!!). Costanzo's voice can't carry those long vocal lines. I know many people love his voice so this is just my personal reaction to his sound.




I don't regret seeing Akhnaten. It was definitely an experience. But as the evening progressed, I went from thinking "I will enjoy this" to "I wish I enjoyed this." And again this brings me back to historical truth vs. emotional truth. There is a famous historical relief that depicts Akhnaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters. Nefertiti has one daughter sitting on her lap while the other is on her shoulders. Akhaten is cradling and kissing another daughter. Ignore the stylized physical depictions of Akhaten and Nefertiti. What you see is an intimate family portrait. Akhaten is not the pharaoh, he's not the embodiment of the sun-god Aten, he's simply a loving father and husband. This one portrait of Akhnaten has more emotional truth than three and a half hours of Glass's meticulously researched opera.

Comments

  1. I will see it in a couple of weeks and I hope I like it more than you did. I have listened to the opening night broadcast 3 times, so that is a good head start, no?

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    Replies
    1. Yeah. I also think this sort of thing comes across much better in HD. It's very cinematic. In an opera house the long intermissions (and foot pain) just made for a very long evening especially in the third act.

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  2. Saw it again today...the encore...and loved it even more than the first time! It is a masterpiece!

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