Egypt, 14th century before Christ: in the fifth year of his reign, Amenophis changes his name to Ach-en-Aton (Akhnaten). He breaks with the religious tradition, in which Amun used to be main god, by proclaiming Aton, the sun disc, as only God, founding a city for the sole purpose of worshipping the new god, and finally by abolishing the old religion. His new ideas don't last, however, Akhnaten is overthrown on the Amun cult reinstalled.

Akhnaten is the last of three portrait operas written by Philip Glass, in which he focuses - after Albert Einstein(Einstein on the Beach) and the young lawyer Mahatma Gandhi (Satyagraha) - on the historic personality of Amun-hotep (Amenophis IV.). It does not have a constant plot, but rather is a symbolic portrait depicting ideas and influences in single episodes. For this purpose, the libretto uses texts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and extracts from decrees and letters of the period, for example, recited by the Scribe and sung by the choir. The fact that they are sung in their original language adds to the dark, partly mystic atmosphere of the opera, which is musically based on the dark sound of the orchestra, which in turn is caused by the absence of violins.

Akhnaten's coronation © Florian Merdes
Akhnaten's coronation
© Florian Merdes
As symbolic as the opera's depiction are all elements of the production, such as the gestures which the Scribe and singers use to support the text, and which also are mirrored in the choreography. They are hieroglyphics, chosen in accordance with the libretto, and translated into movements, and you learn to recognise and even understand them in the course of the opera. The coronation of the new ruler Akhnaton, too, is very symbolic: In the previous scenes, he had been hidden in a rigid costume similar to a sarcophagus, from which he emerges on the occasion, thus shedding the Old and Stiff. The long skirt of the costume also gives the impression of hovering and floating rather than just walking - a knack of costume that is maintained and explored in order to establish his godlike position.

Symbolic, too, is the minimalist stage, with an upside-down pyramid indicating the overthrow of the old regime. The openings in the stage floor are also part of it, both as scene-related stage design and as allegory of archaeological excavations and historic layers. The dancers become living carriers of meaning without taking on a specific role: they carry out the numerous open modifications on stage or serve Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti as emotional shadows, particularly in their wonderful lovers' oaths, in which the dancers physically depict what gestures and words of the singer cannot express.

The choreography, however, is subordinate to all other events, it's only purpose to illustrate meaning. Movements are strongly connected to the rhythm of the music and that of the text and appear to be primal, sometimes chiselled. Apart from a brief episode at the beginning of Act III, they do not - and correctly so - have the organic, flowing quality we are used to from previous pieces or pure dancing choreographed by Nanine Linning. The ensemble visually shapes instrumental passages, becomes a silent part of the choir in vocal passages and puts into action the emotional content of the libretto. Even though a dance element had not been planned by Glass, this production combines opera and dance into a harmonious unity, in which Georg Meyer-Wiel's simple costumes fit in as well. Depending on the occasion, he wraps choir and dancers in plain black or white, the Scribe is dressed in a neutral grey, only the soloists wear colours in their simple yet elegant garments, always long-skirted as an allusion to old Egyptian clothing.

Akhnaten (Artem Krutko) and Nefertiti (Amélie Saadia) with Léa Dubois and Kyle Patrick (dance) as "emotional shadows" © Florian Merdes
Akhnaten (Artem Krutko) and Nefertiti (Amélie Saadia) with Léa Dubois and Kyle Patrick (dance) as "emotional shadows"
© Florian Merdes
Vocal unity was also achieved by Artem Krutko (Akhnaten) and Amélie Saadia (Nefertiti). Their love duet in particular was very emotional, and both singers sang beautifully and with great rhythmic accuracy. Krutko, formidable but never sharp, overruled Amélie Saadia in voice crossings, but in the unison parts, their voices melted into one voice of surprising power, like two single people may find greater strength in a relationship. A little more strength would have been needed by Michael Zahn (Aye) in his first cue that, for me, is characteristic in Act I, yet which, unfortunately, was quite inaudible. Apart from that, the other solo parts and especially the choir gave a very strong performance, mastering rhythmically contrasting physical movements and cues off-stage.

Akhnaten(Artem Krutko), Nefertiti(Amélie Saadia), High Priest of Amun (Ks. Winfrid Mikus) © Florian Merdes
Akhnaten(Artem Krutko), Nefertiti(Amélie Saadia), High Priest of Amun (Ks. Winfrid Mikus)
© Florian Merdes
The only fly in the ointment was the brass section in the orchestra under the baton of Dietger Holm, often very dominant but rhythmically inaccurate. In general, however, the orchestra did a great job. The long arpeggio sections were played precisely, and the musicians never failed to keep up the tension despite the mostly repetitive and calmly flowing music - only in the dramatic scenes like the escalade of the Temple of Amun and Akhnaten's fall, which, by the way, is not historically documented, does it become more agitated.

The opera ends with a sudden leap into the present, the Scribe morphs into a tourist guide and the dancers into scientists: curiously they study the royal figures and finally wrap them in cling foil for preservation in a symbolic act of mummification. May this production also be preserved for more days to come, as it is unpretentious, without being shallow, and it definitely is worth a visit.