The Metropolitan Opera – Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten – Anthony Roth Costanzo; conducted by Karen Kamensek

Philip Glass
Akhnaten – opera in three Acts to a libretto by Philip Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell & Jerome Robbins [sung in Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew and English, and spoken in English]

Akhnaten – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Queen Tye – Dísella Lárusdóttir
Nefertiti – Rihab Chaieb
Horemhab – Will Liverman
Aye – Richard Bernstein
High Priest of Amon – Aaron Blake
Amenhotep III – Zachary James
Akhnaten’s Daughters:
Bekhetaten – Linda Ohse
Meretaten – Katrina Thurman
Maketaten – Chrystal E. Williams
Ankhesenpaaten – Annie Rosen
Neferneferuaten – Olivia Vote
Sotopenre – Suzanne Hendrix
A Professor – Zachary James
Young Tutankhamun – Thalia Chan-Miller

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Karen Kamensek

Phelim McDermott – Production
Tom Pye – Set & Projection Designer
Kevin Pollard – Costume Designer
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer
Sean Gandini – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 25 May, 2022
Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City

Akhnaten, the final opera, from 1984, in Philip Glass’s ‘Portrait Trilogy’ of influential historical figures, is back at the Met. Phelim McDermott’s visually spectacular production features circus-like elements of juggling and acrobatics, dazzling imagery, luxurious costumes, solid performances, and the Orchestra and Chorus in splendid form. 

Like Glass’s other operatic works, the libretto – which chronicles the seventeen-year reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who changed his royal titulary to Akhnaten to show his devotion to the sun god, Aten, and tried to convert his kingdom to monotheism — is not strong on storyline. The rather limited vocal text draws on ancient hymns, prayers and inscriptions sung in the original Akkadian, Egyptian, and Hebrew, and there are few subtitles per se. The ones that appear serve to present only scene headings and selected text. The thinly plotted tale unfolds in eleven tableaux linked by an English-language narrative recited by the resonant-voiced Zachary James who doesn’t get to sing but occupies a great deal of stage time and maintains an authoritative presence as Amenhotep III, the title character’s beyond-the-tomb father figure.

While brimming with repetitive rhythms and sounds, the score is more listener-friendly than most of Glass’s operatic output. The fleeting melodies, sudden entrances of instruments, and small changes in the beat require great concentration and flawless musicianship. The Orchestra and Karen Kamensek handle the multiple challenges with ease as the constantly pulsating music, played with rigorous intensity, permeates the theater. 

The highly stylized, snail-like motions of the singers and the well-coordinated choreography of the jugglers and acrobats in Sean Gandini’s ‘skills ensemble’ parallel the harmonies, while Bruno Poet’s lighting designs play an active and important role in creating the otherworldly mood. As the performance proceeds, however, the visual elements can sometimes overwhelm the drama. One could do with fewer acrobats, beachballs, and airborne bowling pins.

Anthony Roth Costanzo delivers a standout performance, completely immersing himself in the title role. His rapt demeanor, physical poise, and slight figure aptly convey the androgenous, mystical character of the pharaoh, while his bright, deceptively light countertenor easily penetrates the heavy orchestration and morphs into something more ethereal as his character becomes less concerned with worldly matters and more preoccupied with things of a spiritual nature. His singing is most alluring in the pianissimo moments of ‘Hymn to the Sun’, concluding Act Two.

The other roles are handled with care. Costanzo’s sound blends well with the lush mezzo of Rihab Chaieb as Nefertiti, Akhnaten’s wife, in their lengthy and sensual love duet in Act Two. In the mournful trio which ends the opera, their voices are complimented by the powerful and expressive soprano of Dísella Lárusdóttir, who, as Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother, is a decidedly chilly presence.

Regardless of any reservations one might have about the meager plotline and the overabundance of visual effects, this production is a resplendent and engaging staging.

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