Although we had Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in November, 2019, I didn’t get to share my thoughts about it when it came to us then.
So here is some of what Guy has been thinking about Akhnaten, which opened last Thursday and runs through Friday, June 10 (the final performance of Akhnaten for this season and the one my friends and I are attending). Joshua Baron’s very insightful and pleasing review (The Met’s ‘Akhnaten’ Takes a Post-Grammys Victory Lap) was published on Friday, May 20.
I wanted to write about this impressive opera when it came to the Met but I ran out of steam. I had put so much energy and enthusiasm into what I wanted to say about The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which had came to us just a few weeks earlier, that I just wasn’t able to give Akhnaten the attention it was due. [In fact I wrote about The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess twice, here and here.]
Yet, almost three years later, do I still want to write about Akhnaten?
You bet I do! After all, this splendid work simply amazed me with its power and musical innovation.
The Met describes Akhnaten as “the third installment in the composer’s Portrait Trilogy focused on revolutionary figures from world history,” and that statement alone makes us stand up and take notice. Starring as the ancient Egyptian pharaoh who attempted to radically alter his society, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, last heard about here when I described The American Opera Company, headlines the cast. And as she did in her Met-debut season in 2019, Karen Kamensek conducts the stunning score, and the cast also features soprano Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye and bass Zachary James as Amenhotep III. Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb, a 2019 graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, is featured as Nefertiti. And almost as exciting as the cast of singers is Phelim McDermott’s endlessly inventive production with breathtaking visuals, including virtuosic pattern-juggling routines by Gandini Juggling.
Not surprisingly, back in the early part of the 2019-2020 season, Akhnaten came to us with much pre-performance information from the Met and a high level of enthusiasm among us opera-goers. As with the season’s other new productions, we were treated to another of the company’s MetTalks, a valuable discussion with General Manager Peter Gelb, cast members, conductor Karen Kamensek, designers, and in this case, the added treat of having composer Philip Glass as one of the participants.
And “to match the opera’s hypnotic music,” as one description of the production noted, “director Philim McDermott created an arresting vision including a virtuosic company of acrobats and jugglers.” So we had choreographer and juggling master Sean Gandini participating in the discussion, bringing along a team of his jugglers to demonstrate for us how these activities fit into the production and, indeed, into the story of Akhnaten. When McDermott proposed that Gandini work with the company, Gandini was able to bring special resonance to the development of the production: “What Phelim didn’t know, in what to me was an extraordinary coincidence, is that the first recorded images of juggling are magnificent Egyptian hieroglyphics.” These depictions of three women jugglers were found in the Beni Hasan cemetery complex from ancient Middle Egypt, and they are images the opera brings to life with”an imaginary Egyptian juggling language” in the opening of the opera.
This focus on a specific language fits, as becomes clear in Thomas May’s informative essay in the opera’s program distributed at the opera house:
According to Shalom Goldman, a professor of religion and ancient languages whom Glass enlisted as a scholarly consultant on the project, Akhnaten’s “rebellion against the massive weight of tradition encompassed religion, statecraft, art, and language, and in each of these he attempted revolutionary innovations.” At the time a graduate student at New York University, Goldman worked with Glass to compile the collage of primary-text sources that make up Akhnaten‘s unusual libretto. The chief sources include poem fragments, inscriptions, diplomatic letters inscribed on cuneiform tablets, and legal decrees. These texts are sung in the original ancient languages (Egyptian or Akkadian, the diplomatic language that had developed in Mesopotamia).
A significant exception is the Hymn to the Sun (attributed to the pharaoh himself), which Akhnaten sings in the pivotal final scene of Act II. Glass requests that this aria be sung in the vernacular language of the audience. English is also spoken in the performance of the narrator figure, whose commentary provides translations of the primary-source texts. In the third scene of Act III, with its dramatic time shift to the present, the narrator additionally reads excerpts from a Fodor’s travel guide about the ruins of the ancient city.
And there is a fourth language, which signifies another reason for Glass’s fascination with the figure of Akhnaten: ancient Hebrew, for the choral setting of Psalm 104 sung off stage as a counterpart to the Hymn to the Sun. The psalm’s uncanny echoes of the Egyptian hymn, for Glass, are meant “to underline the connection of Akhnaten’s ideas with those of our own time and culture.” The composer’s reference is to the controversial theory that Sigmund Freud famously advanced in his 1938 essay collection Moses and Monotheism, that Akhnaten’s suppressed religious revolution survived and re-emerged – channeled by Moses – as ancient Jewish monotheism.
The opera was first performed in Stuttgart at the Staatsoper in 1984, and the same year it came to the Houston Grand Opera for its American premiere. Akhnaten was then performed by the English National Opera in 1985 and later revived there. A new co-production by the English National Opera and LA Opera premiered in 2016, in both London and in Los Angeles the same year. This production was revived in March 2019 and came to the Met in November, 2019. As noted in one source, according to Philip Glass the work is the culmination of his two other biographical operas, Einstein on the Beach, about Albert Einstein, and Satyagraha, about Mahatma Gandhi (Glass refers to the three operas as his three “portrait” operas). In Glass’s thinking, these three people were all driven by a vision that changed the times in which they lived: Akhenaten in religion, Einstein in science, and Gandhi in politics.
At this point, and with the opera having achieved its important influential place in the modern opera canon, there’s not much left to say except to praise the work of everyone involved. Obviously I can’t do that in any more detail here, but for readers who cannot get to a performance at the opera house, Akhnaten will be broadcast worldwide on the Met’s international radio network on May 28. And the opera has been and continues to be available since the 2019 performances via the Met’s online streaming service.