The Met Streams Akhnaten

By Lynne Gray, PhD

This performance may be streamed from the Met Website

Saturday, June 20

Philip Glass’s  Akhnaten

Conducted by Karen Kamensek, starring Dísella Lárusdóttir, J’Nai Bridges, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Aaron Blake, Will Liverman, Richard Bernstein, Zachary James. Transmitted live on November 23, 2019.

This weekend features two mesmerizing modern masterpieces by Philip Glass – one about ancient Egypt and the other about Gandhi’s time in South Africa. Both are incredible productions by Phelim McDermott that incorporate virtuosic jugglers, puppets, and acrobats—they are quite unlike anything else ever put on the Met stage, and both proved to be sold-out sensations. More on Satyagraha tomorrow!

Akhnaten is actually the last opera in Phillip Glass’s now famous, Portrait Trilogy -“Practically from the first moment, I knew I had found the subject for my third opera,” Glass recalls in his 1987 autobiography. After the unexpected success of Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1980), Akhnaten rounded out the Trilogy, three operas focused on great innovators across history. “Akhnaten completed the trilogy in many satisfying ways,” Glass continues. “If Einstein epitomized the man of Science and Gandhi the man of Politics, then Akhnaten would be the man of Religion.”

Akhnaten is a portrait of the revolutionary pharaoh, Amenhotep IV – who renamed himself Akhnaten in the fifth year of his reign – and whose attempt to convert his people to the monotheistic worship of the sun God, Aten, eventually led to his overthrow.

Glass has described himself as “a Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist” whose minimalist composition style almost hypnotizes the listener with its repetitive, chant-like yet immersive music. The opera is a vocal and orchestral tour de force sung in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, and Ancient Egyptian. In addition, it features an actor reciting ancient Egyptian texts in the language of the audience (in this case English!). The young female conductor, Karen Kamensek, is a Glass expert and enthusiast.

The “portrait” operas should not by any means be taken as rigorous biography; Glass treats each of his subjects more poetically, abstracting their essences for ‘meditations.’ The operas present seminal events in each man’s life, and this one includes three acts representing significant periods in Akhnaten’s reign, each with several scenes depicting the most notable events. So, for Akhnaten, a roadmap is useful. I hope the following will help your understanding of what’s going on in this beautiful spectacle for the eyes, ears, and mind.

Act 1: Year 1 of Akhnaten’s Reign in Thebes

Thebes, around 1370 BC

Prelude, verse 1, verse 2, verse 3 – a scribe recites funeral texts.

Scene 1: Funeral of Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III – led by Aye who is Nefertiti’s father.

Scene 2: The Coronation of Akhnaten – attended by the High Priest, Aye, and Horemhab who is a general and a future Pharaoh.

Scene 3: The Window of Appearances – a public appearance – Akhnaten sings a praise to the Creator (in Egyptian!). This is the first time Anthony Roth Costanzo actually sings although he has already been on stage for 20 minutes (and we are 40 minutes into the opera). The effect of his beautifully ethereal countertenor voice is startling. He is joined by his wife, Nefertiti, who actually sings lower notes than he, and later by his mother, Queen Tye, whose soprano soars high above the intertwining voices of the royal couple.

Act 2: Years 5 to 15 in Thebes and Akhetaten

Scene 1: The Temple – Akhnaten, together with Queen Tye and his followers, attack the temple of the High Priest of Amun (the old order) and remove the roof letting Aten’s rays invade the temple.

Scene 2: Akhnaten and Nefertiti – A beautiful love theme is played on two celli and a love poem is first recited and then sung individually, and finally together, by Nefertiti and Akhnaten to each other.

Scene 3: The City – Dance – Akhnaten has built a new capital city of the sun – Akhet-Aten (modern day Amarna).

Scene 4: Hymn – to the only God, Aten. It is the only text sung in the language of the audience and praising the sun. After the aria, an off-stage chorus sings Psalm 104 in Hebrew, dating some 400 years later. The psalm has strong resemblances to Akhnaten’s Hymn and emphasizes Akhnaten as the first founder of a monotheistic religion.

Act 3: Year 17 and the Present

Around 1353 BC

Scene 1: The Family – Akhnaten, Nefertiti and their six daughters, sing wordlessly in contemplation, they are oblivious to what happens outside of the palace where the country is obviously falling apart.

Scene 2: The Attack and Fall of the City – Horemhab, Aye and the High Priest of Aten instigate unrest among the people until they finally attack the city and the palace. The royal family is killed, and the city of the sun destroyed.

Scene 3: The Ruins – The scribe recites an inscription on Aye’s tomb, praising the death of “the heretic” and the returning reign of the old gods. Amun’s temple is restored by Akhnaten’s son Tutankhamun. The scene moves to the present where a guide reads “There is nothing left of this glorious city of temples and palaces”.

Scene 4: Epilogue – The ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye appear, singing wordlessly amongst the ruins. They join the funeral procession.

This is a truly extraordinary experience and an engrossing, moving, innovative example of modern opera at its very finest. You shouldn’t miss it!

Photo Credits

1.              Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Met. Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera.

2.               A scene from Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Met with choreographer Sean Gandini’s juggling dance troupe. Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera.

3.              Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Met. Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

4.              J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, and Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye in Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Met. Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

5.              Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Glass’s “Akhnaten” and J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti at the Met. Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

6.              Zachary James as Amenhotep III’s Ghost, and Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, in Akhnaten at the Met. Karen Almond/Met Opera.

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