Thirty five years after it was written, the Met staged Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten for the first time this month. Today it made its way to the movie theater as part of the company’s HD series. Glass is a leading member of the minimalist school of music. My understanding of this school is that it eschews melody, rhythm, dramatic impact, and development; repetition is its lodestone. Conductor Karen Kamensek, making her Met debut in this run of Glass’s opera, gave the game away when she likened her role to that of a metronome. There are people who profess to like this sort of thing which explains Glass’s long and relatively successful career as a composer.
The Met offered only limited subtitle support for this production as most of the ‘words’ are a melange of gibberish and dead languages. Akhnaten’s hymn is in English as are the words spoken by a non singing actor who plays the ghost of Amenhotep III – Zachary Jones. He has orotund tones. Unfortunately, he was stricken with a bout of hoarseness in the third act. The story, it’s more like phrase, is about Amenhotep IV and his attempt to change ancient Egypt’s religion to monotheism, but it just as well could have been about the fall of the Roman Empire.
The essential ability needed to sing Glass’s music is counting. If you lose track of how many repetitions are behind or in front of you, you’re in big trouble. A few weeks of Sesame Street is an almost essential preparation for any of the composer’s operas. Counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo seemed good at numbers and, I suppose, got everything out of the role. But one has to enjoy men singing falsetto to fully appreciate his art.
No matter how hard I tried to concentrate on the action – stasis is a better word – I kept thinking of Monty Python, particularly the Ministry of Silly Walks. All of the cast moves in slow motion as if they’re in the early stages of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. So while I didn’t nod off, my concentration was subpar. I missed Mr Costanzo’s nude scene or perhaps Video Director Gary Halvorson aimed his cameras elsewhere or used a wide angle lens or maybe I was just thinking of John Cleese.
Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, she could have been a bass and I wouldn’t have noticed, made her Met debut as Queen Nefertiti. She seemed to have a nice voice, but I’d have to hear her in something a little more lively to really tell. The same goes for soprano Dísella Lárusdóttir. The rest of the cast soldiered on with slow motion dispatch. Maestra Kamensek (Hostess Joyce DiDonato called her maestro) was a good metronome.
Both DiDonato and Met General Manager Peter Gelb kept calling Akhnaten a masterpiece. Since repetition was the code word of the day, they seemed to think if they said masterpiece often enough it would be so. Since nothing much happens on stage except for juggling (see below) words like hypnotic, meditative, dream-like, trance, and other gauzy terms were tossed around like figurated chords, though I kept hearing soporific. If you took the introductions to a couple of dozen bel canto arias and separated them from their subsequent melodies and then strung them together you would have an opera similar to one by Glass.
This production was first mounted by the English National Opera in 2017 and won an Olivier Award. It has a lot of scenery and costumes from a variety of epochs. Including a skull mounted on a silk top hat. It was very colorful and impressive. A few elephants would have been nice, but director Phelim McDermott opted for jugglers. I don’t know why they were there, but there were a lot of them. The were tossing everything that wasn’t fixed to the stage. Of course it was inevitable that some would be dropped and they were. One miss came at a bad time when the camera was on top of the accident. The juggling was provided by Sean Gandini and associates. The balls were the only things moving faster than a Galapagos Tortoise.
If this review seems disjointed, consider it a minimalist form of the genre lacking all forms of prose save letters. What was the reaction to this opera in my locale? The lady to my left departed after the first act. The gentleman to my right said the production reminded him of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Another gentleman a little further to my right likened the production to a visit to the dentist where you only received nitrous oxide. OK, I made that up.
Metropolitan Opera House
November 23, 2019
Philip Glass-Philip Glass/Shalom Goldman/ Robert Israel/
Richard Riddell and Jerome Robbins/Vocal text drawn from
original sources by Shalom Goldman
Akhnaten…………….Anthony Roth Costanzo
Queen Tye……………Dísella Lárusdóttir
High Priest………….Aaron Blake
Amenhotep III………..Zachary James
General Horemhab……..Will Liverman
Meretaten……………Karen Chia-Ling Ho
Maketaten……………Chrystal E. Williams
Young Tutankhamun……Christian J. Conner
Skills Ensemble: Sean Gandini, Kelsey Strauch, Sean Blue,
Doreen Grossmann, Liza van Brakel, Iñaki Fernández Sastre
Michael Karas, Kim Huynh, Shane Miclon, Kati Ylä-Hokkala
Christian Kloc, Brian Koenig
Set/Production Designer…Tom Pye
Costume Designer……….Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer………Bruno Poet
Video Director………….Gary Halvorson