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Glass akhnaten OMM5011
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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Akhnaten, opera in three acts (1984)
Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Costanzo (counter tenor)
Amenhotep III: Professor: Zachary James (actor)
Aye: Richard Bernstein (bass)
Queen Tye: Dísella Lárusdóttir (soprano)
Nefertiti: J’Nai Bridges (mezzo)
High Priest of Amon: Aaron Blake (tenor)
General Horemhab: Will Liverman (baritone)
Skills Ensemble, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Karen Kamansek
Production: Phelim McDermott
Set and Projection Designer: Tom Pye
Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Choreographer: Sean Gandini
rec. live, 23 November 2019, Metropolitan Opera, New York
Booklet included. Subtitles in English, French, German and Spanish

The minimalist operas of Philip Glass that arrived on the world stages during the 1970s and 80s were an attempt to bring something new to the vocabulary of operatic discourse. Operas tend to exist in a world of heightened emotions and musically broad brushstrokes which draw the audience into that world. Glass conceived of a new kind of opera where the story is more emotionally remote and cerebral, where the music becomes a very densely woven fabric: one in which it is virtually impossible to separate the voices from the orchestra. Experiencing an opera like Satyagraha or Einstein on the Beach is not unlike viewing a carefully preserved objet d’art behind a glass wall in a museum. Akhnaten, with its ancient Egyptian story and its texts derived from ancient historical sources like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, is the most remote yet strangely fascinating of all three of what Glass referred to as his portrait operas.

The Metropolitan Opera waited to bring Akhnaten to its stage for 36 years after the world premiere in Stuttgart in 1984. The New Yorkers who attended this sold out series of performances no doubt felt that it was an event that was long overdue. The production chosen was one that was created by Phelim McDermott, initially for English National Opera which premiered about 9 months prior to this one. McDermott and his team of designers have hit upon a brilliant way of tying the mostly slow-moving action with the seemingly endless revolutions that occur in the orchestra. They did this by involving a team of acrobats and jugglers who are in constant motion throughout, echoing or passing a visual commentary on the events. Akhnaten feels like a long static opera to sit through, but McDermott and his team have achieved the impossible by making the nearly three hours gyrate along very swiftly in a production that has much in common with a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza.

The team of vocalists is cast from strength although many of the singers tend to get absorbed into the texture of the score and don’t really get much opportunity to stand out and display their artistry. Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Akhnaten is given the most opportunity by Glass. For much of the evening he looks as if he has been made of pure alabaster. He has to move in a very ceremonial manner while at times having to negotiate some very difficult ascents/descents of steep stairways. These are choreographed in such a way as to make him seem to be floating in a disembodied way around the stage. Costanzo’s voice is a master class in control of vocal line and when combined with his ethereal sound, he becomes as glitteringly remote as the sun disc that Akhnaten worships. His Prayer to the Sun that closes the second act is visually and musically the high point of the opera.

J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti brings a stunningly beautiful appearance and a mezzo of rare golden tone to a character who retains her timeless mystery in Glass’ opera. During the long, sensual love duet with Akhnaten, Bridges displays just what impressive an artist she has developed into.

Zachary James as the dead King Amenhotep III, Akhnaten’s father, receives the brunt of the dramatic responsibilities in this opera by having to deliver dramatically inflected recitations of ancient texts while also having to act, and in one impressive scene, carry Akhnaten’s body in his arms like a child. Mr James is riveting both for his powerful vocal declamation and for his display of strength. He brings great stature to a non-singing role, which could become an unpleasant intrusion if not handled skilfully.

The remainder of the singers all bring positive contributions to the staging but don’t get to stand out as individuals, with the exception of Aaron Blake who’s clear tenor briefly stands out as the High Priest of Amon. The wonderful Dísella Lárusdóttir spends much time moving about impressively in her stunning costume as the dowager Queen Tye, but she only emerges clearly from the musical carpet of sound during the closing epilogue. This is late perhaps, but she does get to display a jewel-like vocal tone for a couple of minutes.

Karen Kamansek conducts the Met orchestra with a sure sense of the journey they are travelling on. The score doesn’t offer much chance for interpretive nuance but I was able to detect musical allusions to other past composers. One such example is Glass’s use of woodwind colours at the beginning of Act Three, which has a distinct similarity to Gounod’s use of those same colours to illustrate the provençale
landscape in his pastoral opera Mireille.

The camera direction of Gary Halvorson deserves a special acknowledgment, particularly in how well it copes with Bruno Poet’s superb stage lighting.The DVD sound and picture quality of this release are exemplary, and there was enough room on the disc to retain all of the intermission interviews with the artists and production team from the original live transmission. We may yet see another DVD release of Akhnaten some day but it is hard to imagine that any could seriously compete with this one.

Mike Parr

Previous review (CD): Jim Westhead

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