Opera, Reviews

Postcard from New York: Akhnaten, Philip Glass, Metropolitan Opera

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Akhnaten is the third of Philip Glass’s early trilogy of portrait-operas, following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (the latter being the Sanskrit word for Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence). Where the previous two works focus on revolutionary figures and movements in twentieth-century science and politics, the third deals with an ancient and less well-known episode in the history of religion.

Akhnaten (or Akhenaten as he is usually called in English) was an Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom Pharaoh who abolished traditional Egyptian polytheism in favour of the exclusive worship of the sun-god Aten. He also challenged the authority of the priesthood and moved the centre of power and worship from Thebes to the newly built capital city of Akhetaten (now called Amarna).

Images of Akhenaten display bizarre and even androgynous features, which may or may not have been anatomically accurate. Possibly they were stylized or represented symbolic aspects of the god Aten, who was called the ‘mother and father’ of creation. He appears to have shared royal status to an unusual degree with his famous queen Nefertiti, and there is speculation that he also shared power and had sex with his daughters as well as his sister and even his mother Queen Tiye.

For whatever reasons (most likely political and economic) the Atenist revolution in religion, art, politics and (possibly) morality was short-lived, at least in Ancient Egypt, though arguably it merely lay dormant until its next historical incarnation. Subsequent generations of Egyptian rulers erased all record of what was regarded as an aberration. The power of the traditional priesthood was restored, the names of Akhenaten and his immediate successors were removed from the official list of Pharaohs, the city of Akhetaten was abandoned, and the temples consecrated to Aten were destroyed.

Philip Glass makes the story of Akhenaten a kind of Passion Play, as the title character is not so much the tragic author of his own downfall as the martyr-victim of external forces that destroy him: the priesthood, the military, and the threat of Hittite invasions. However he also represents a possible figure of hope or salvation in the future – or at least in the symbolic afterlife of religion and art.

Philip Glass makes the story of Akhenaten a kind of Passion Play, as the title character is not so much the tragic author of his own downfall as the martyr-victim of external forces that destroy him.

The opera ends with the Narrator/Scribe – a speaking role who in this production is also the ghost of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III (a vocally and physically commanding performance by bass-baritone Zachary James) – becoming a present-day tour guide describing the ruins at Amarna (using words from a Fodor’s travel book). The ghosts of Akhnaten (counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo), Nefertiti (mezzo J’Nai Bridges) and the Queen Mother Tye (Icelandic soprano Dísella Lárunsdottir) then reappear and sing wordlessly as the music from the opening Prelude to Act One is reprised. It’s a reminder of the importance of the afterlife and the transmigration of souls in Ancient Egyptian religion; perhaps the sun-god Aten is to be reborn as Yahweh, his son-king Akhenaten as a Messianic saviour, and even the city of Akhetaten as the New Jerusalem – or in more secular terms, a horizon of freedom and peace on earth (though in historical fact the Atenist revolution seems to have degenerated like all such programs into intolerance and tyranny).

The score and orchestration as well as the libretto and dramaturgical structure of Akhnaten are in some respects more conventional than Einstein or Satyagraha. The orchestra more or less resembles that for a typical 19th century romantic opera, with the addition of tubular bells and the notable absence of violins, which gives the overall sound a darker and more melancholy colour (Glass allegedly did this because of the reduced size of the orchestra pit at the Stuttgart Opera due to renovations when the work was first performed there in 1984). The composer’s signature use of relentless ostinatos and almost imperceptible shifts in tempo, time-signature or even key-signature (most of the opera is in A minor) are made more palatable by the use of soaring melodies, especially in Act Two for the tender love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti (which recalls the divinely erotic love poetry of the Hebrew Song of Solomon), and then later for Akhnaten’s ardent Hymn to the Sun. The last is a long solo aria which Glass specifies is to be sung in the language of the audience (most of the rest of the libretto is in Ancient Egyptian or Akkadian; it is then recapitulated by an offstage chorus, this time using the Hebrew words of Psalm 104.

The opera is thus something of a glorious mishmash (or perhaps more appropriately midrash) in terms of musical, dramatic and theological material. British director and long-time Glass collaborator Phelim McDermott (who will be performing in his production of The Tao of Glass for Perth Festival in March 2020) previously directed Satyagraha for the English National Opera as a co-production with the Met and his theatre company Improbable in 2007–8. Akhnaten is a similar co-pro with LA Opera and Improbable which debuted at the ENO in 2016, and is the first production of the opera to be seen at the Met.

McDermott’s staging adds another layer of dramaturgical ‘commentary’ to the score and libretto, which gives the whole work an added sense of coherence and impact. This involves the indeed improbable but nonetheless inspired use of juggling (suggested by early depictions of juggling in Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings) more or less continuously throughout the show, with twelve onstage jugglers (choreographed by Sean Gandini) in hooded and speckled Lycra bodysuits, sometimes augmented by members of the chorus and even the Narrator/Scribe, making increasingly complex patterns of movement with an escalating series of increasingly numerous juggling balls in various shapes and sizes.

The effect is to give a kind of visual counterpoint to the rising and falling, intricately woven and incrementally changing patterns of the score, as well as adding a heightened level of tension and focus to the music and its flawless realisation by the orchestra and singers. You really have to hear Glass performed live to appreciate the thrill of this as well as its hypnotic power – here allowed to unfold with unusual sensitivity and flexibility by the Met Opera Orchestra under the baton of Glass specialist Karen Kamensek.

You really have to hear Glass performed live to appreciate the thrill of this as well as its hypnotic power

Stylized movement in extreme slow motion by the singers is also carefully choreographed, and gives the impression of hieratic figures in Ancient Egyptian art slowly coming to life and (especially in the case of Akhnaten and Nefertiti) becoming free-flowing bodies in three-dimensional space. In a New York Times interview McDermott says he used Michael Chekhov’s elemental ‘movement-qualities’ to achieve this; whatever the case, the result is an unusually liberated physicality on the part of the singers.

Kevin Pollard’s hybrid costumes add another layer of visual complexity by referring both to Ancient Egypt and to the era of nineteenth-century European archaeology when the remains of Akhenaten and his city were uncovered. In particular the roles of Nefertiti’s father and imperial advisor Aye (bass Richard Bernstein), the High Priest of the former reigning god Amon (tenor Aaron Blake) and the military general and future Pharoah Horemhab (baritone Will Liverman) are all costumed in a way that suggests that the nature of power behind the scenes has changed little in the intervening centuries. Aye is dressed in a Victorian frock-coat and top hat (surmounted by a voodoo-like skull) like a sinister and manipulative business tycoon, and Horemhab wears a khaki jacket and culottes like an army officer poised to stage a military coup.

In contrast, Akhnaten, Nefertiti, Tye and the Narrator/Scribe are dressed in a riot of what looks like gloriously coloured and textured bric-à-brac. Zachary James’s bald, towering Scribe resembles a Klimt painting in his long patched gold robe (later stripped back to expose his muscular arms). Akhnaten’s royal dress fans out like a Velasquez Infanta and is decorated with sewn-on doll’s faces. Later he and Nefertiti appear in matching diaphanous scarlet nightgowns, beneath which the barely visible outlines of female breasts and pubic triangles give them the appearance of twin hermaphrodites.

The impact of the costumes is heightened by the saturated colours of Bruno Poet’s lighting and Tom Pye’s multileveled scaffolding set, crowned by a succession of huge descending gold, red and silver disc-shaped solar icons. In combination with the postmodern minimalism of Glass’s repetitive score, the overall effect is of a vaguely steam-punk sci-fi visual and aural world that is less archaic than futuristic in its vision of Ancient Egypt as a floating realm of unchanging dreams.

All this is anchored by Costanzo’s extraordinary central performance. He first appears for his coronation naked and totally shaved like a newborn baby, and the first piercing note of his clean, almost vibrato-less counter-tenor twenty minutes after his entrance is a coup de théâtre in itself. Even more effective is the delicacy with which his voice floats above and later entwines with the deeper, richer mezzo of Bridges as Nefertiti, or the protective shield of Lárunsdottir’s higher, more gilded soprano as his mother Aye hovering above them both. Beyond his musical gifts, however, Costanzo’s expressive but controlled face and body, combined with his underlying vulnerability, enable him to inhabit the role with such conviction that he appears to coincide with it – as one imagines Akhenaten himself must have done, in his sense of immanent divinity, perhaps even to the detriment of his own sanity and survival.

The impact of the costumes is heightened by the saturated colours of Bruno Poet’s lighting and Tom Pye’s multileveled scaffolding set, crowned by a succession of huge descending gold, red and silver disc-shaped solar icons.

Hegel wrote that Ancient Egyptian religion and art had the character of an enigma or riddle – not only for us, or for the Greeks, but for the Egyptians themselves. This was because of the sense of mystery or indifference on the part of their gods in relation to humanity; hence the use of animals as figures of divinity, because of the impenetrability of both divine and animal consciousness to human understanding. The historical figure of Akhenaten arguably has something of this enigmatic quality, not only because of the puzzling nature of some of the archaeological evidence, but also because of his fundamentally ambiguous theological, political and even psychosexual significance.  Was he a monotheist or monomaniac, tyrant or liberator, masculine or feminine, gay or straight, human or god? Perhaps this is one of the reasons that his revolution was resisted and finally suppressed; too much ambiguity is intolerable for any society, especially in a leader.

Glass’s opera – at least in McDermott’s production, and especially as embodied in Costanzo’s performance – goes some way towards expressing this enigma without forcibly resolving it, making the riddle communicable if not comprehensible, so to speak, using fragments of text in various languages (living and dead), hybridized images from different eras and traditions, and above all music as a form of pure organised sound, purged of meaning. As such, the enigma of Akhenaten comes alive for us again, and becomes something deeply exciting and beautiful.

Akhnaten by Philip Glass, directed by Phelim McDermott and co-produced by the English National Opera and LA Opera in collaboration with Improbable, ran at The Metropolitan Opera in New York from November 8 – December 7.

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