Philip Glass, Akhnaten (1984)
Based on: various Egyptian texts of the period, including the Book of the Dead
Setting: Egypt, 1370 B.C.E.
Sung in: Akkadian, ancient Egyptian, English, Hebrew
Plot in 101 words or less: Amenhotep’s funeral is bringing everyone down (well, the men anyway, women are probably out getting shit done). Akhnaten now rules Egypt. Know what also rules? Tubular bells (Mike Oldfield shout-out)! Akhnaten, wife Nefertiti, and mom Queen Tye turn out to be a bunch of hippie sun worshippers; Akhnaten acts all Jesus in the Temple, eventually bringing down the roof (literally). Akhnaten and Nefertiti have their own summer of love, and eventually six daughters. Do childcare woes blind them to the growing unrest? Maybe. Or it could be the jugglers. In any case, the mob rules and now so does Funky Tut.
I’m not a huge fan of contemporary music but the Math Greek is doing his best to convert me to the church of Philip Glass. This opera definitely helped tip the scales in his direction, although that was mostly due to the incredible production values rather than the music of this work.
At least the singing was excellent. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (last seen as Armindo in Partenope) was utterly dramatic—he first enters fully nude—and completely believable as Akhnaten, as was contralto J’Nai Bridges (last seen as Bersi in Andrea Chénier) as Nefertiti.
The supporting cast was also strong, including soprano Stacey Tappan as Queen Tye (Akhnaten’s mother), baritone Kihun Yoon as Horemhab (Akhnaten’s general), Patrick Blackwell as Aye (Nefertiti’s father), and Federick Ballentine as the High Priest of Amon. Zachary James played the Scribe who narrates the piece (as there are no supertitles).
The opulent production was really something to behold. While including far too much juggling (seriously, it was well done, but I have limits), the three-level set pieces were impressive and the tableaux presented, particularly those with the sun on high, were quite striking. I loved the costumes by Kevin Pollard, which ranged from Ancient Egyptian to Victorian Goth—as seen above with Aye’s top hat, complete with skull.
All in all, it was a fine capper to a terrific Thanksgiving weekend.