By Mary Spencer – The National Review –
Philip Glass’s otherworldly opera portrays the religious devotion of a pharaoh.
The final opera in Philip Glass’s “portrait” trilogy, Akhnaten, which premiered in 1984, had its Metropolitan debut this season. (The first two in the trilogy, Einstein on the Beachand Satyagraha, are about the lives of Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, respectively.)
The score is minimalist with maximal effect, repetitive and slowly building on themes. The libretto is primarily in English, but also makes good use of Hebrew, ancient Egyptian, and Akkadian. The performance is intrinsically ritualistic. “If Einstein epitomized the man of Science and Gandhi the man of Politics, then Akhnaten would be the man of Religion,” Glass once said of the work. Akhnaten’s most affecting passion is not physical but spiritual. While the opera, as directed by Phelim McDermott, is bright and opulent, it makes clear that its protagonist is driven not by hedonism but by principle. Akhnaten is remarkable in its depiction of the Egyptian ruler’s piety, its immemorial-sounding rhythms, and its visual composition of illumination and acrobatics.
The plot loosely tracks the life of Akhnaten, an 18th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh, who ruled for 17 years. The husband of Nefertiti and the father of King Tutankhamun, Akhnaten is perhaps best known for his embrace of the worship of a single god in the Egyptian pantheon, Aten, the god of the sun.
The opera is divided into three acts: first the pharaoh’s ascendency to the throne, then his embrace of monotheism and construction of a new city, and finally his death. The opera is bookended by the death of Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III, and an epilogue in which a professor lectures a class of callow Egyptologists on the history of the ruins of Akhnaten’s once-great city.
The opera is measured in tone, but is surprisingly emotional. I feared that Glass’s libretto would offer little beyond aridly composed abstraction, but between the charging music, lavish choreography, and expressions of love between Akhnaten and Nefertiti and Akhnaten and Aten, if anything the danger was sentimentalism.