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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Akhnaten, opera in three acts
Amenhotep III, Akhnaten’s father – Zachary James
Aye, Nefertiti’s father – Richard Bernstein
High Priest of Amun – Aaron Blake
General Horemheb – Will Liverman
Akhnaten – Anthony Roth Costano
Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother – Dísella Lárusdóttir
Nefertiti – J’nai Bridges
Akhnaten’s Daughters: Bekhetataten – Lindsay Ohse, Meretaten – Karen Chia-Ling Ho, Maketaten – Chrystal E. Williams, Neferneferuaten – Olivia Vote, Sotopenre – Suzanna Hendrix
A Professor – Zachary James
Young Tutankhamun – Christian J. Connor
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Donald Palumbo (chorus master), Karen Kamensek
rec. live November 2019, Metropolitan Opera, New York

Everyone has heard of Tutankhamun. Who has not gazed with astonishment at the young Pharaoh’s funeral mask? But he was a very minor monarch. If his wonderful funeral items had not been found, he would have been a mere footnote in the history of Egypt, not least because his reign was short and uneventful. He was also the victim of generations of inbreeding. The ensuing multiple physical problems may have contributed to his early death.

Genetic testing has verified that Tutankhamun was the grandson of the great pharaoh Amenhotep III, and almost certainly the son of Akhenaten. Unlike his son, Akhenaten was a very significant Pharaoh indeed. He abolished the worship of Amun, the principal deity, and established himself as the sole gateway of prayer to his god, Aten (the sun disk). That alienated the immensely powerful religious establishment of Amun, and doubtless many others across Egypt. Akhenaten, perhaps the first monotheist monarch in history, created the city of Akhetaten (modern Tel el-Amarna) as a new capital. The surviving art shows him sitting opposite his principal wife Nefertiti whilst kissing one of their baby daughters, an extraordinary departure from the traditional hieratic representations of the Pharaoh and the Great Royal Wife.

Akhenaten’s astonishing prayer to Aten is used in the opera only partially because a full English translation runs to nearly a thousand words. It begins with

Though appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!

and ends with

There is no other that knows thee… thy son
Who came forth from thy body: the King of Upper and Lower Egypt
And the Chief Wife of the King,
Nefert-iti, living and youthful for ever and ever.

No one who has seen Akhenaten’s surviving portraits and statues will fail to notice his extraordinary physical attributes: a long narrow face with pouting lips and pointed chin, as well as noticeable breasts, a protuberant belly and hips of voluptuous female fulness. There have been attempts to find the medical cause of such appearance, but the mummy ascribed to him is of a normal male physique. The thinking now is this: he considers himself the sole representative of Aten on Earth, so all prayers must go through him, and that is why his likeness must include male and female elements. (In this production of the opera, he is represented wearing exaggeratedly wide-hipped cropped pants.)

Akhenaten’s religious actions did not long survive him. The succession of shadowy pharaohs that followed him are disputable, until Tutankhaten. At his succession, the name was changed to Tutankhamun in a final dismissal of Aten.

Philip Glass chose the spelling “Akhnaten”, and this is what will appear from now on.

This recording derives from the very successful Metropolitan Opera production in 2019, which followed the same successful production by the English National Opera in 2016.
Glass set the eponymous role of Akhnaten for countertenor, sung here by Anthony Roth Costanzo. I will say at the outset that he is one of the very few countertenors I have encountered who can sing high notes with no sense of strain. In fact, he copes superbly with the cruel tessitura.

I think that there is no weak member of the cast. The singing is uniformly excellent, and Anthony Roth Costano’s is quite outstanding. As his voice mixes with the equally high voice of J’nai Bridges, the essentially masculine quality of the countertenor voice in contrast with the soprano is made apparent. He shows an outstanding ease at encompassing the highest notes. With surprising amount of the opera’s text spoken by the ghost of Amenhotep III, Zachary James’s burnished tones suit the declamatory style of the ancient Egyptian funerary and coronation rites.

The live recording is good, with no audience noise, and the solo voices are easy to hear.
The chorus has a lot to do, and they are well balanced in relation to the orchestra. They sing in Egyptian and other ancient languages, and their words are not always clear, but the rhythmic, repetitive style of the minimalist music suits their chant-like texts.

Glass’s music is obviously very repetitive, and is intended to be so, but I must admit that there were times during the purely orchestral interludes when I felt that the repetition could have been shortened somewhat. That would have avoided a sense of impatience I felt creeping into my mostly receptive stance.

There is a 1987 studio recording of the opera, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, in what was originally a CBS studio recording. In recent years I have only heard excerpts from it. The countertenor is not given to hoarse shrieking but is not quite as good as Costano, and occasionally somewhat tremulous. The chorus is better balanced and their words are clearer. The recording is also excellent, but I cannot say if it comes with a libretto in its Sony re-incarnation. Even so, it is a good alternative to this new issue.

The booklet that accompanies the double gatefold is very well produced, with many colour photographs of the production (gosh! what superb costumes). There is a historical note on what is known of Akhnaten’s reign, and a most interesting section that deals with Philip Glass’s conception in creating the libretto, including the need to fill in gaps in the historical record, and the producer’s aims in staging it. There is a scene-by-scene synopsis, and a line-by-line sung text in English.

Jim Westhead

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