Juggling on the Nile – Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera

United StatesUnited States Glass, Akhnaten: Soloists, Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra / Karen Kamensek (conductor), Metropolitan Opera, New York, 19.11.2019. (RP)

Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Glass’s Akhnaten
© Karen Almond/Met Opera

Director – Phelim McDermott
Sets and Projections – Tom Pye
Costumes – Kevin Pollard
Lighting – Bruno Poet
Choreographer – Sean Gandini

Queen Tye – Dísella Lárusdóttir
Nefertiti – J’Nai Bridges
Akhnaten – Anthony Roth Costanzo
High Priest of Amon – Aaron Blake
Horemhab – Will Liverman
Aye – Richard Bernstein
Amenhotep III / Professor – Zachary James
Bekhetaten – Lindsay Ohse
Meretaten – Karen Chai-Ling Ho
Maketaten – Chrystal E. Williams
Ankhesenpaaten – Annie Rosen
Neferneferuaten – Olivia Vote
Sotopenre – Suzanne Hendrix
Young Tutankhamun – Christian J. Connor

The Metropolitan Opera has a runaway hit with Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: there are only a handful of seats to be had for the remaining four performances. And for all the fretting about aging audiences at New York’s traditional cultural venues, the view from the grand staircase allayed fears. The Millennials were out in force, and a fair number of iGens as well. The late Bill Cunningham, an indefatigable chronicler of New York fashion, would have had a ball snapping photos of the bold outfits on display. Glamour at the Met is alive and well, but it is certainly being reimagined.

Akhnaten is the third of Glass’s trilogy of biographical operas on men who altered the age in which they lived through the power of ideas rather than military force. Akhnaten (or Akhenaten) was an Egyptian pharaoh who abandoned polytheism and introduced, albeit unsuccessfully, monotheism to his kingdom. The other two operas are Einstein on the Beach (as in Albert Einstein) and Satyagraha (about Mahatma Gandhi). Einstein on the Beach came to the Met for two performances in 1976, while Satyagraha was first presented by the company in 2008 and revived in 2011. Just how did it come to pass that Glass (let’s not forget The Voyage in 1992) is standard Met repertoire?

There is little plot in Akhnaten, just a series of tableau-vivant-like scenes that depict episodes from Akhnaten’s reign linked by a narrative (delivered by the towering, stentorian-voiced Zachary James). The text is drawn from original sources and is in Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew, and the language of the audience (English, in this case). There were no subtitles per se, and the few that did appear related for the most part to the time and place of the scene. In spite of the intellectual underpinnings of the opera, comprehension at the cerebral level is incidental to experiencing emotion through sound and sight.

Phelim McDermott’s production was originally conceived for the English National Opera and LA Opera. Akhnaten’s new religion focused on the worship of the sun, and the strongest, most potent images – a huge disc, first a searing orange and later white and serene, and the balls that jugglers toss into the air – relate to it. By the third act, however, the jugglers had perhaps outworn their welcome, as spontaneous laughter erupted as they slithered across the stage on their backs. Once the balls were in the air, however, the visual impact was just as mesmerizing as before.

Stylized movement generated an overall placidity that was in perfect sync with the music. This is one of Glass’s more listener-friendly scores, but it is still replete with repetitive rhythms and sonorities. A slight change in the musical pulse, the fleeting appearance of a melody or the entrance of a solo instrument is startling. Equally so were any changes in the movements of the characters on stage, especially the slightest variation in the patterns of the jugglers.

For all involved, performing a Glass opera is an impressive feat of concentration requiring impeccable musicianship. These responsibilities rest most heavily on the shoulders of the conductor, and Karen Kamensek has integrated Akhnaten into the very core of her being. Kamensek kept the music flowing with clocklike precision and enveloped the theater in a shimmering, pulsating, musical cloud. The orchestra, shorn of the violins, played with relentless intensity. In its various on- and off-stage configurations, the Met chorus sounded wonderful, producing sounds of incomparable richness and depth.

Anthony Roth Costanzo submerged his entire being into the role of Akhnaten. As the newly crowned king, Costanzo wore robes reminiscent of the bejeweled dresses on statues of the Madonna in churches in Spain and Portugal. Later, as he is consumed with spiritual matters, he dons simpler robes. Costanzo is a vocal as well as physical chameleon, and the timbre of his distinctive countertenor also morphed as Akhnaten became ever more removed from worldly matters and preoccupied with those of the spiritual realm.

J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti, the Great Royal Queen of Akhnaten, was the most earthly of the three royal personages. Her movements were just as precise and studied as those of Costanzo, but her innate majesty (one might say charisma) and deep, alluring mezzo-soprano are not easily contained. Dísella Lárusdóttir had comparatively less to sing as Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother, but she, like Costanzo, inhabited her role completely. With the subtlest change of expression or posture, Lárusdóttir immediately commanded attention or shifted the mood.

In the program, McDermott wrote that juggling at first seemed a bit far-fetched for the central visual element in an opera. He later learned that the first known images of it date from Middle Egypt. Together with juggling master Sean Gandini, McDermott created a visual language full of minute, infinite variations, the same qualities that make Glass’s music so absorbing.

Rick Perdian

This production can be seen in cinemas throughout the world live from the Met on 23 November for more information click here.

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