In various languages with English subtitles
Of Philip Glass’s many, many operas — 30 or so, depending on how you count — “Akhnaten” may be the most ritualistic and mystical. With the subdued, undulating opening of the long orchestral prelude, Mr. Glass is sending a message: Put aside your typical expectations of music drama. This isn’t Tosca; you’re on Glass time.
Please note that Akhnaten will be performed without subtitles, except for scene titles and select texts. Director Phelim McDermott’s goal is to create a theatrical experience that is beyond words, plot information and conventional storytelling. He wants the audience for Akhnaten to be overtaken by the hypnotic nature of the music, the visual imagery and the pageant-like nature of the piece. The scribe sets the scene in English, and the rest of the text (including ancient Egyptian and Hebrew) which does not have subtitles is highly repetitive, often fragmented and ritualistic rather than descriptive.
In other words, this show will be different to what usual Met Opera patrons may have come to expect.
It is sung in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian which are not translated; the music and action tell us all we have to know. English is spoken by a strong-voiced narrator in the personification of Amenhotep III, and sung by Akhnaten in his “Hymn to the Sun” and in the royal couple’s love duet.
The storytelling is direct – the old king, Amenhotep III dies and is buried, his son is crowned and renames himself Akhnaten. He banishes the concept of multiple gods in favor of monotheism in the form of “the sun’s disc”, he weds Nefertiti, he orders a new city to be built in praise of the new religion. The royal couple and their family lead insular lives to the consternation of the citizenry who storm the palace and kill Akhnaten; polytheism is restored and in a flash we are in the present, in a museum, where we learn that almost nothing is known of Akhnaten’s 17 year reign.
Akhnaten is one of Philip Glass’s three large-scale operas based on a big idea, in this case monotheism, following Einstein on the Beach, which dealt with new notions of time and space, and Satyagraha, which explored the spiritual and political revelation of non-violence. Satyagraha and Akhnaten, especially, deal largely with the unseen forces affecting the inner (psychological), interpersonal (political), and universal (mystical) aspects of existence, subjects that are uniquely portrayed by the composer’s entrancing musical lines.
The set — slightly steampunk, with corrugated metal walls and industrial-style platforms — coexists with fantastical evocations of the pharaoh’s world; an Egyptian aristocrat is dressed like a 19th-century gentleman, but with a skull embedded in his top hat.
USA 2019, 223 min incl two intermissions
Conducted by Karen Kamensek
Set Design/Director: Phelim McDermott
Starring Anthony Roth Costanzo, J’Nai Bridges, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Aaron Blake, Will Liverman, Richard Bernstein & Zachary James