Coinciding with a period of cooler, shorter days, and political change (even upheaval), the LA Opera staged a generous month-long run of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, chronicling the subversive pharaoh who incited a religious revolution in ancient Egypt.
Third in a series of “portrait operas,” (the operatic equivalent of the biopic), Akhnaten, followed in the footsteps of Einstein and Gandhi, though three millennia their senior.
“So far I had covered science and politics. After that I was looking for a figure who influenced the religious side of society,” Glass told LA Opera.
Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach (1976)—a collaboration with director Robert Wilson—was shocking in its originality, great length, and anti-narrative concept, but equally shocking in its success, effectively launching Glass’s career.
An experimental work, LA Opera revived it in 2013 for a terse single weekend run.
Akhnaten, by comparison, markets well: commanding yet vulnerable, approachable yet profound. The work hypnotizes in it visual impact, restrained musicality, spirituality, and the ring of historic authenticity.
Varieties of Minimialist Experience
Glass is counted among the foremost exponents of minimalism in music, and has been for some decades. What is surprising in Akhnaten is that an expansive genre like opera fits so spaciously in minimalist terrain, and integrates minimalist techniques continuously and convincingly.
Akhnaten exemplifies minimalism in all its many forms—some often overlooked. Beyond the now trademark arpeggios and tremolos pervasive throughout the Glass output, an economy of means—musical, theatrical, and dramaturgical—guides the opera.
Vocal lines are simple and direct, with narrow tessituras, seeming to avoid any superfluous virtuosity. Texts (when comprehensible) are pithy, repetitive, and set syllabically, fostering clarity and understanding.
Scenes are few in number, and drawn out, but imbued only minimally with story-forwarding action. Atmosphere drives Akhnaten above all else. Drama is restricted by the judicious hand of a minimalist composer: Almost an anti-plot, the opera unfolds in a series of immersive vignettes that paint a portrait of the title figure and his legacy.
Perhaps the clearest example of Akhnaten’s minimalism is its relentlessly slow, measured pace of physicality on stage. The cast moves with a ceremonious, unhurried composure, as if the characters of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings had come alive.
That stately concept of movement, traceable perhaps to Glass-collaborator Robert Wilson’s use of slow motion, distinguishes this production—by Phelim McDermott and the English National Opera—from the original, faster version of the Stuttgart State Opera.
The deliberate pace, which never fails to enchant, induces that present-moment awareness associated with the best of minimalist music. Intermittent juggling episodes course throughout the opera, accenting the palpably inert ambience with gravity-speed bursts of activity.
Commissioned by Stuttgart State Opera during a period of renovation, Glass was required to reduce the orchestral forces to accommodate a smaller pit. He adapted by omitting the violin section entirely, setting the highest string writing for the darkly shimmering violas, lending a fitting melancholy character to the orchestral tuttis.
Though stopping short of that classic operatic organizing principle—the leitmotif, recurring motives do provide a thread of comprehension, unifying the lengthy opera through the power of musical memory.
An exposed A natural minor scale, played as a bassoon solo, courses sedately upwards and downwards, sparsely accompanied by thin string writing and gentle woodwind chords, perhaps symbolizing the rise and fall of Akhnaten, his new capital city, and the monotheistic religion he founded centered on the Aten—the disk of the sun.
At the heart of the opera, rounding out Act II, Akhnaten sings a radiant hymn to the sun, in the warmly contrasting key of A major. The one and only aria in English, it is set syllabically to a simple melody of repeated notes and occasional, sparkling leaps.
A Dead Language Comes Alive
Librettist Sholom Goldman calls Akhnaten a form of “vocal archeology,” in the way texts were borrowed from original sources, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, tomb inscriptions, and Akhnaten’s own poetry.
Most of the opera is sung in the Ancient Egyptian language, its resolute cadence imparting a distinguishing power that elevates text itself to a standing beyond the norm for opera. The first stanza of the choral setting which opens the opera immediately calls attention:
Ankh ankh, en mitak
Yewk er heh en heh
Aha en heh
Live life, thou shalt not die
Thou shalt exist for millions
of millions of years
For millions of millions of years
The sole drawback to the textual treatment might be the use of anachronistic King’s James English translations in the “Hymn to the Sun” and the text of the Scribe (the narrator and tour guide of the whole opera), which in its distanced formality seems at odds with the otherwise contemporary, highly personal character of the opera.
A Transcendent Pharaoh
The strongest connector of audience to opera was Akhnaten himself, portrayed by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who at once seemed exempt from the boundaries of mortality and sexuality, yet closely related to his listeners.
Akhnaten first appears descending from an elevated platform in a lengthy procession scene, fully frontally nude. His leisurely, aimless gait, and bare, shaved body and scalp impart a newborn, androgynous, angelic quality to the character that endures continuously.
Costumes by Kevin Pollard also served to reduce clarity of gender: ornate, baroquely bejeweled ceremonial regalia enveloped Akhnaten like a newborn swathed in loincloth. His ceremonial robe was imprinted with a female breast insignia, fostering a dual-gender persona.
Akhnaten’s gender is negated further—and foremost—by the use of the countertenor vocal quality, a form of falsetto vocalizing, although more resonant and capable of vibrato.
“When you write an opera, you have a very limited time to tell a complicated story,” Glass said. “Any shortcut becomes important.”
Akhnaten is silent onstage for 40 minutes, and when he finally does sing, “they are all astonished by the sound that comes out of his mouth. It is a clever way of emphasizing him as different,” elaborated Glass.
Tom Pye’s set design was always visually stunning and often surreal, featuring a brilliant, blinding sun, a moon of shifting hues—by turns white, pink, and blue—and later several giant levitating luminous orbs, all pointing to a dream realm more than any actual past.
The Welcome Akhnaten
In the end, what is most striking about Akhnaten is its relevance: That an Egyptian pharaoh separated by three millennia of history could come alive to speak to contemporary audiences so intimately, in a dead language left largely untranslated, in a rare, almost artificial vocal type—that listeners should feel a sense of welcome and belonging—is the genius of this opera and production.
Despite courtyard protests that the original Akhnaten was black but Anthony Roth Costanzo is white, there was a mood of excitement and the sense of something important happening at LA Opera. And while some of the Italian opera regulars were conspicuously absent—replaced by new faces this round—at six performances, Akhnaten is firmly established in the mainstream operatic repertoire.
Glass has made a similar observation: “I always felt there was a public that would like this music, and over time, the audiences, so small in the beginning, have only gotten larger.”