Late 20th century nights at the Met feel like some kind of temporary truce between warring New York artistic factions. And so it was for the premiere of Philip Glass’ 1985 opera “Akhnaten” Friday night, which found the hip and (often, though certainly not all) under 60 crowd improbably slumming it on the Upper West Side to honor the original downtown master finally seeing this landmark 35 year old work getting some recognition uptown.
Akhnaten is the third opera in the “Portrait Trilogy” along with Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach, but in format and musical language Akhnaten and Satyagraha are really a pair relative to the far more out there experimentation of Einstein. Glass’ subject here is the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who, according to the scraps of evidence that survive, briefly overthrew Egypt’s polytheistic religion for monotheism.
As with Satyagraha, Glass sets evocative pieces of text that broadly capture different ideas and events related to the subject. Here he draws us into the drama and mystery surrounding the political cult of Ancient Egypt, as well as Akhnaten’s idea of monotheism. It is a fascinating and varied score, combining periods of long meditative stasis with pounding, exhilarating choruses that create real action with only the thinnest outlines of a plot declaimed by a narrator.
Perhaps the one misstep is the segue to the epilogue, in which the narrator becomes a modern university lecturer describing what evidence is left of Akhnaten before the haunting final trio sung by the ghosts of Akhnaten, his queen, and his mother. I can appreciate the idea of confronting the audience with how much what we've just watched is really an academic fiction, but I don't know if it justifies breaking the magic of the piece with a psychiatrist-at-the-end-of-Psycho-style explanation. Moving straight from the action to the otherworldly final chorus would be a lot more effective.
Phelim McDermott’s production is just what one might imagine “BAM goes to Lincoln Center” entails (In a good way!). The basic language of the production is symbolism and abstraction, but the catwalk set and its compartments allow for a bewildering array of chorus members and supernumeraries to get involved. There’s a cool scrim that creates sort of an ancient hieroglyphics effect with real actors. Kevin Pollard’s dazzling costumes give ancient Egypt via Victorian times via star wars, and of course there is a whole jumpsuit clad juggling troupe. There are so many arresting visual moments here, from the Act I finale when Akhnaten in his giant gilt hoop skirt get-up, framed with LED sun rays, announces his new religion, to the iconic image from the production photos of Akhnaten climbing a set of stairs in an endless gauzy red robe before a giant red globe representing Aten.
Does the production sometimes try to do too much? Does one sometimes wish the production had taken one thing off before it left the house? Maybe. It’s a very different show, of course, but feels a lot less cohesive than the McDermott’s Satyagraha production for the Met. The fact that the most resonant stage imagery come in the more economical second act, when the catwalk set is largely sidelined, suggests the production’s focus wanders a bit in the big group parts of Act I and Act III, which seem more concerned with getting a lot of cool stuff onstage than clearly conveying some meaningful fusion of stage tableau and music. There are also moments in the outer Act crowd scenes (Akhnaten fighting the old guard priests, Akhnaten later being hounded by the old guard) where the dramatization of the action gets awfully literal, as though after getting hordes of people in place there wasn’t time left to come up with more creative ways to convey the ideas. The “avant garde” elements of the production seem to be ultimately more of a convenient aesthetic option than any kind of deliberate approach shaping the production.
Also I was sort of ambivalent about the juggling, which worked beautifully in a few places (especially the *group juggling with beach balls* during Act II), but raises the specter of a Diane Paulus’ Pippin revival-type situation, where the director doesn’t trust the material and needs to juice it with stuff that is entertaining in its own right regardless of what show it’s in. But ultimately I think these are quibbles. This is an exceptional piece of stagecraft and the kind of delightfully gonzo thing the Met really excels at when it wants to.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s performance is as much an achievement of physical as of musical drama. From his arresting entry, slowly descending a staircase completely nude, eyes locked into the horizon, he establishes himself as the mesmerizing presence at the heart of the production some 20 minutes before he sings a note. When his distinctive countertenor sound does show up, it is hard to imagine another singer in the role. It’s a very particular, highly focused, slightly nasal sound that makes a much more forward impression than a more typical countertenor timbre, and unmoors the character from specific gender or age to great effect. His big second act aria, sung in the vernacular of the audience, was an overwhelming moment, Costanzo unearthing painful devotion and ecstasy in service of/oneness with his deity.
J’Nai Bridges, in a Met role debut as Nefertiti, made a wonderful vocal partner for Costanzo, especially in their second act duet, another key highlight. Akhnaten and Nefertiti, dressed in identical translucent red robes with long trains extending into the wings, sing a duet of long lines that intertwine in rapturous chromatic harmonies. Elsewhere in the cast, soprano Disella Larusdottir’s Queen Tye had some warm up challenges early on, but settled in well, beautifully supporting the central trio in both the end of the Act I and the finale. Zachary James, in a spoken role as the narrator, and the rest of the supporting cast were superb. Glass’ music sometimes seems deceptively easy to an audience, but requires huge amounts of stamina and consistency from singers. Hearing Glass' music performed at this level with major operatic voices is truly a rare treat.
The high level of the principals was echoed by the Met chorus and orchestra, led here by Karen Kamensek. Minimalism certainly seems like a misnomer for Glass’ work when applied to the highly complex choral and orchestral demands of this work, but Kamensek managed to hold things together with ease (except maybe some coordination issues with the offstage percussion?) while capturing the sense of epic timelessness in the score.