There were far too many highlights of the Met’s recently truncated season – performed and planned – to write about here. And all my readers know that I’m a committed opera fan, so I was sorry not to be able to share my thoughts about one of the most important productions I’ve ever experienced at the Met.
Philip Glass’s Akhnaten came to us in November and December, and I was able to see Akhnaten twice, once at the opera house and once with our “opera gang” in the Met’s Live in HD series shown in cinemas throughout the world (with an amazing 350,000 – so we’ve been told – opera enthusiasts all watching together).
So I was looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm about the opera with readers. As it happened, though, other opera topics came up. Not wanting to focus too many of the blog’s essays on the subject of opera, I was forced to put off my description of Akhnaten. And then I found out I did not have to worry, for in his remarks at the Live in HD performance, Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb announced that Akhnaten would be coming back to the Met, for the 2021-2022 season.
Pleased that I would be able to experience the opera again and anticipating that I would write about this splendid piece of music then, I put my thoughts about Akhnaten aside. Then PBS came to our rescue, so here we are, with Guy – and probably many other Met fans, opera fans in general, and especially Philip Glass fans – pleasantly awaiting the broadcast. I’m happy to tell you that Akhnaten will be broadcast on Sunday, April 5, at 12 noon in the New York area. PBS subscribers in other locations should check with their local stations to determine the timing for the broadcast.
Not surprisingly, back in the early part of the season, the opera 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 Gelb, cast members, conductor Karen Kamensek, designers, and in this case, the added treat of having 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.”
And, yes, choreographer and juggling master Sean Gandini was part of the discussion, bringing along a team of his jugglers to demonstrate for us how the juggling activities fit into the production and, indeed, into the story of Akhnaten. When McDermott proposed that Gandini work with the company, he 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, Gandini contends, “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 this aria to 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 Stayagraha, 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, and superior place in the modern opera canon, there’s not much left to say except to praise the work of everyone involved. Obviously we can’t do that in any detail here, but we can (if for no other reason than to give you a sample of the splendid work that went into the creation of the production’s costumes and sets) identify the three leading performers, pictured above: J’Nai Bridges, at the left, portrayed Nefertiti, Akhnaten’s wife, Akhnaten, center, was sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo (last heard about here when I wrote about The American Opera Company), and Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s Mother, was sung by Disella Lárusdóttir, pictured right).
Again, if you can pull yourself away from thoughts about our current health crisis (which, frankly, isn’t easy to do), take some time on Sunday, April 5, at 12 noon to hear and see the spectacular Akhnaten. A musical, cultural, and intellectual experience not to be missed.