The Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten was broadcast in high definition to theaters around the country. The director was Phelim McDermott and it was headlined by counter Anthony Roth Costanzo. The production was originally created by the English National Opera and the LA Opera.
Akhnaten was composed by Glass in 1983, with a libretto by Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, and Jerome Robbins. The current production was first performed in London in March 2016. It is written in Glass’ early style that he describes as “music with repetitive structures.” It uses melodic chord progressions, undergirded or surrounding by swirling arpeggios, all of which slowly migrate into another melody and so on. Some dislike it immensely and call it un-musical and others find it to be compelling and transfixing. I go with the latter. I experience Glass’ music as hypnotic and reverie-inducing. Since I first heard his works performed (in Lincoln, Nebraska in the early 1980s), I have mostly been a fan.
The Met performance was absolutely stunning. The costumes were breathtaking, including garments that were a mashup of styles, e.g, heavy baroque fabrics with gold thread, highlighted by various doll faces that have a modern expressionist look. In Akhnaten’s wedding to Nefertiti, both wore brilliant red oufits with trains that were half the stage’s width. The sun was resented by a large white balloon that became a brilliant red. The stage had various levels, where the chorus was placed. A large, LED-lit picture-frame like structure ascended and descended to act almost like a halo for the King and for his father, as he speaks from the afterlife. The Met Orchestra was conducted by Karen Kamensk, a Glass colleague and aficionado.
Sopran J’Nai Bridges performed the role of Nefertiti; soprano Disella Larusdottir was Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye; tenor Aaron Blake was the High Priest of Amon; bass Richard Bernstein was Aye; Baritone Will Liverman was Horemhab; and Zachary James played the King’s father, Amenhotep III. James’ role was non-singing and he is an imposing figure on stage.
But no doubt the star of the show was Costanzo. His countertenor was clear, uncolored, and unforced. He is in great physical condition and it was a wonder to see him use his entire upper body, from his diaphragm to his mouth, to generate his exquisite sound. He ascended and descended steps with sure foot, and he never looked look down to ensure his steps were certain.
Most of the actions on stage were very slow and deliberate requiring both concentration and balance, with the exception of James’, who often used his hands and arms extensively as he addressed the audience. Jugglers were introduced in this production, and their actions mimicked Glass’ swirling musical figures.
For me, this performance has the dignity and power of a three and a half-hour religious service. When Ahknaten sings praises to the sun, the music is gorgeous and the staging, which has Costanzo ascend a flight of stairs to become one with the sun, was spellbinding. If one ever needed to be reminded, opera can be so powerful because of the melding of music, story, and performance and in the hands of great performers, it can be an exalted experience. This was that, and more. It combined the hypnotic spell that is Glass’ music with modern theater that revered a major historic figure, by creating a remarkably creative vision.
To see videos, go here: https://www.metopera.org/season/2019-20-season/akhnaten/