Philip Glass’s Akhnaten Brings Ancient Egyptian Piety to Life

From left: J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, and Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. (Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera)
Glass’s otherworldly opera portrays the religious devotion of a pharoah.

The final opera in Philip Glass’s “portrait” trilogy, Akhnaten, which premiered in 1984, had its Metropolitan debut this season. (The first two in the trilogy, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, are about the lives of Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, respectively.)

The score is minimalist with maximal effect, repetitive and slowly building on themes. The libretto is primarily in English, but also makes good use of Hebrew, ancient Egyptian, and Akkadian. The performance is intrinsically ritualistic. “If Einstein epitomized the man of Science and Gandhi the man of Politics, then Akhnaten would be the man of Religion,” Glass once said of the work. Akhnaten’s most affecting passion is not physical but spiritual. While the opera, as directed by Phelim McDermott, is bright and opulent, it makes clear that its protagonist is driven not by hedonism but by principle. Akhnaten is remarkable in its depiction of the Egyptian ruler’s piety, its immemorial-sounding rhythms, and its visual composition of illumination and acrobatics.

The plot loosely tracks the life of Akhnaten, an 18th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh, who ruled for 17 years. The husband of Nefertiti and the father of King Tutankhamun, Akhnaten is perhaps best known for his embrace of the worship of a single god in the Egyptian pantheon, Aten, the god of the sun.

The opera is divided into three acts: first the pharaoh’s ascendency to the throne, then his embrace of monotheism and construction of a new city, and finally his death. The opera is bookended by the death of Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III, and an epilogue in which a professor lectures a class of callow Egyptologists on the history of the ruins of Akhnaten’s once-great city.

The opera is measured in tone, but is surprisingly emotional. I feared that Glass’s libretto would offer little beyond aridly composed abstraction, but between the charging music, lavish choreography, and expressions of love between Akhnaten and Nefertiti and Akhnaten and Aten, if anything the danger was sentimentalism.

However, the work is a bit too strange to be mawkish. The setting is clearly Egyptian, but Glass’s music for a to-some-degree-unknowable ancient civilization is almost otherworldly. The music, sung in some of the oldest recorded languages, with a high countertenor accompanied by low chanting, is both exceedingly familiar and alien.

The opera has several different visual layers: relatively simple sets, careful lighting, and elaborate costumes and choreography. There is constant motion on stage, be it acrobats juggling, set pieces slowly moving, or lights varying in luster. The effect is entrancing. Although it’s hardly an action-packed show, the glowing sun-like lights and acrobatics make it a visually arresting one.

At his investiture as pharaoh in Act One, the first time that he appears on stage, Akhnaten, played by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, arrives nude like a child being born. He does not dress but is dressed, a sign of royalty, and one which also reminds the audience that Akhnaten is fulfilling a duty by becoming pharaoh. He does not ascend because of personal desire for the throne but because of his obligation to his people and his gods that he has carried since birth.

Confronted with full frontal nudity, one wonders whether it is erotic or is intended to add sex-appeal to the opera. I would say to the latter, no, to the former, yes. The display is not sexual, but it is erotic in the sense that it is an expression of man’s longing, love, and desire to be close to God.

The beauty of the opera is inherently religious. One of the high points is Akhnaten’s Hymn to the Sun. Akhnaten, alone on the stage, in a flowing garment of gold, ascends a staircase, singing directly to a huge glowing spherical representation of the god of the sun. The aria ends with an off-stage choir chanting Psalm 104 in Hebrew. Costanzo’s clear, light countertenor emphasizes the profound serenity with which Akhnaten encounters his god. The pharaoh’s monotheism is presented as a prefiguration of the Abrahamic relationship between God and man. As much as God is worthy of awe and praise, he is also worthy of love.

With a limited historical record available of the pharaoh’s life, Costanzo does not project any revisionism or unexpected interpretation onto the ruler. His performance is rather understated. He does not draw attention to himself, but often acts in reference to other people — primarily Aten, but also his father and mother, his wife, and his subjects. Akhnaten does not let desire determine what he sees as his duty, but rather his duty determines his desire.

J’nai Bridge as Nefertiti shines in Act Two in a duet with Costanzo, sung in ancient Egyptian. Her rich, warm mezzo soprano is an excellent counterpart to Costanzo’s higher pitch. Clad in cathedral-length red garments, the singers give the appearance of being engaged in a religious rite more than simply in a romantic encounter.

In Act Three, Akhnaten, his family surrounded by a mob led by his own high priests, does what he believes is right, not what is expedient, and remains steadfast in his piety. He and his family are killed, and his city built to honor the sun is destroyed. The opera is refreshingly unpragmatic. Akhnaten is moved by pious love, not more base — though surely necessary and practical — mundane concerns.

The epilogue is a rather strange final scene, presenting a different kind of death than in the first scene — not physical death but death of memory. Although the young Egyptologists care little for the ruins and lost lives buried in them, the audience itself has just sat raptly through a three-and-a-half-hour-long opera about this ancient kingdom. Through art, these lives are not forgotten; although shrouded in the darkness that falls between their history and ours, they are able to move us still.

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