Amidst a grand public relations blitz, the a new production of Philip Glass’ 1984 Akhnaten has finally arrived at the Met, having been seen in London and Los Angeles. Reports from afar were glowing, and, indeed, it is a magnificent musical and dramatic spectacle. Director Phelim McDermott, conductor Karen Kamensek, the glorious, finely trained and tuned orchestra, Donald Palumbo's chorus and a quite miraculous cast have been gathered and offer a mesmerizing, deep, and vastly entertaining contemporary masterpiece. Complaints about Mr Glass’ repetitive, ritualistic music seem to have gone out the window – when I looked around, there were fewer audience members nodding off than during some of the company’s more basic repertory; indeed the enthusiasm was comparable only with the company’s earlier-in-the-season Porgy and Bess.
The third in the composer’s “portrait” trilogy which includes Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, Akhnaten is the most accessible. 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.
The orchestra is full and the orchestration brilliantly colored; it is scored without violins, giving the work a darkish timbre. The repetitive/variation-on-a-rhythm music clearly outlines the dramatic context, and is mimicked by Sean Gandini and his troupe of 12 jugglers, costumed alternately as hieroglyphics or in a type of camo. Tom Pye's tri-level set comes and goes and serves everyone well and Kevin Pollard's costumes, from the sheer white that originally wraps the naked Akhnaten to the matching bright red gowns for the royal couple in their love duet, to the almost Elizabethan gowns for our boy-king to the spooky look of the couple's six daughters, elicited gasps of approval. And Bruno Poet's lighting – oranges, yellows and soft pinks, the latter transmogrifying into astonishing reds – were often underscored by the exotic orchestration and the string of images.
With the exception of some crowd scenes – the burial and the storming of the palace – movement is intensely slow and deliberate, more than a bit reminiscent of the work of Robert Wilson. 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.
Anthony Roth Costanzo, whom I first encountered at the 2008 Glimmerglass Festival as Nireno in Giulio Cesare, has grown into a magnificent artist. Both he and his countertenor are lithe and focused, all in the service of the music. His concentration in the death-march movements is staggering and his sound is big and beautiful, if a smidge light at the bottom. I cannot imagine another singer coming close to his compelling performance. J'nai Bridges as Nefertiti sounded warm and lush; Dísella Lárusdóttir's high, bright soprano as Queen Tye, Akhnaten's mother, blended hauntingly with the royal couple in their otherworldly trio.
Zachary James, towering physically above the rest of the cast, spoke Amenhotep's narration with grand authority and sang with an impressive, dark tone and Aaron Blake and Richard Bernstein impressed in their smaller roles. Karen Kamensek led with a sure hand, with a blip only in Act 1's more frantic moments. She clearly understands the ritual aspect of the score but put great energy into the drama as well, leading so successfully that the audience easily heard the variation as well as the repetition in Mr Glass's spectacular score.
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