Arts and Entertainment

Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” is a Megalomaniacal Feast for the Senses

Philip Glass brings the opulence of Ancient Egypt to 21st century New York.

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In visionary American composer Philip Glass’s long career, there has been no work that is as comprehensive, genre-spanning, and historically intensive as his opera “Akhnaten.” Glass’s musical rebelliousness in the opera parallels the religious zealousness of his muse, Akhnaten himself, who abolished Egypt’s polytheism, instituting his own new quasi-monotheistic religion centered around a new sun god. Akhnaten’s successors spent centuries trying to erase his legacy off the face of the earth, destroying murals and defacing statues. However, Akhnaten continues to survive and is immortalized in Glass’s modern opera, which was recently revived in a limited run at the Metropolitan in November.

In this new iteration, the legendary pharoah is cast as a tragic figure in an opulent narrative featuring a multilingual libretto, twelve expert jugglers, over-the-top set design, and the first case of full-frontal nudity in the history of the Metropolitan Opera.

After a lengthy prelude of string arpeggios, the curtains are drawn to reveal the maximalist stage. It is divided into three horizontal levels by wooden planks to resemble the cross-section of a huge dollhouse, a nod to the usage of registers—parallel lines that separate a drawing into rows—in traditional Egyptian art. In each space created by the scaffolding is a distinct scene, be it jugglers dressed in skin-tight leotards with exotic prints, or priests gathering together in a secretive manner. In the center room, a group of servants and priests are conducting a funerary ritual, solemnly removing organs from a dead body presumed to be Amenhotep III (Zachary James) and placing them inside canopic jars. All of a sudden, the deceased Amenhotep emerges as a phantom, chanting a funerary incantation in a deep orotund voice, “Open are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts.” A powerful male chorus chimes in and sings a hymn to the robust beat created by drums, which soon escalates into a delirious frenzy.

The chaotic energy of the opening scene of “Akhnaten” then gradually gives way to a slow and mesmerizing tempo, as Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo) appears on stage fully nude, his oiled body glistening under the warm yellow stage light. He descends twelve ivory steps in painfully slow motions, his expression somber but dignified. With deliberate choreographed motions, his servants drape him in layers of fine linen and cloth threaded with silver. At last, Akhnaten dons a golden robe bejeweled with countless rubies and diamonds. The spectacular costume design dazzles the audience and creates an otherworldly atmosphere, along with the hypnotic orchestral music. Everything gives off a brilliant radiance, transporting the audience back to the decadent 18th dynasty.

Though overwhelmingly sensual and visually-gripping, the set design of “Akhnaten” is smart-alecky and detracts from the narrative. Designer Tom Pye makes many references to the iconography of the Amarna art style that developed during the historical Akhnaten’s reign: during the coronation scene, the set incorporates an explosion of golden ribbons streaming outwards from the pharaoh’s body, the ends of which are attached to tiny gilded hands, in imitation of the pendant rays often depicted in stone carvings and murals of this time period. Additionally, an elaborate set is built to illustrate Amenhotep’s journey through the underworld, directly alluding to the Book of the Dead. A massive weighing scale, on which deities weigh the heart of the deceased king against the white feather of truth, stands at the center of a chamber. The scale balances immediately as the feather is dropped onto the plate, proving Amenhotep III’s moral purity. Overly literal depictions of Egyptian symbols like these are gimmicky and focus too much on the aesthetics of spectacle rather than supporting the opera as a whole.

Despite the set design’s numerous citations of Egyptian art, “Akhnaten” is not simply a straight interpretation of history. It is more like Egypt imagined by a Westerner that borrows heavily from Victorian-era England, steampunk, Gothic fashion, and modern art. It is precisely this multicultural and anachronistic approach that makes “Akhnaten” so successful. The opera touches on subjects such as gender through a twentieth-century lens, highlighting Akhnaten’s androgyny by showing his body’s slow transformation from a muscled man in the first scene to a curvy womanly figure wearing a tube dress with breasts and pubic hair toward the end. This perfectly echoes the fact that ancient Egyptian paintings often depicted the pharaoh with feminine features—which stems from Akhnaten’s belief that the sun god is not confined to one gender. This androgyny that’s key to the narrative perhaps also explains Glass’s choice of making his lead role a countertenor. Costanzo’s honeyed voice soars high above all the other singers, paralleling the God-like figure that he makes himself out to be. Akhnaten’s gender-fluidity is consequently emphasized by the disjunction between his powerful physique and sweet singing.

Costanzo’s talent is fully shown off in the aria “Hymn,” in which the pharaoh solemnly climbs up a long staircase that soars into the sky, almost touching a gigantic red sphere that symbolizes the sun. Akhnaten sings in English for the first time, professing his love for the god that he single-handedly created, Aten. He chants piously from the libretto adapted from texts likely written by the historical Akhnaten himself, “When thou hast risen on the Eastern Horizon / Thou art fair, great, dazzling, / High above every land.” During his trance-like conversation with Aten, Akhnaten’s voice, high-pitched and fluctuating from the saturation of emotion, is juxtaposed with the pulsating arpeggios of the orchestra. Light and airy is thus enhanced by the dark and rich.

The slow movements of all the actors are punctuated by the juggling ensemble led by master juggler and choreographer Sean Gandini. As Akhnaten and the royal family glide across the stage in meditative trances, countless tiny balls are thrown into the air in swift motions, becoming the only things that attract the audience’s attention. According to the production team, the juggling serves to visualize the undulating emotions of the characters that may otherwise be too elusive. However, this becomes extremely distracting: the poignance of Akhnaten’s brutal assassination is weakened by absentminded juggling and scattered balls everywhere. Glass’s signature drawn-out tempo is interrupted by the throwing and catching that’s out of sync with everything else, creating a disjunction that could easily make anyone anxious.

The splendor of the height of the pharaoh’s reign is reduced to ruins in the third act of the opera. Akhnaten, oblivious to the fury of his people at the new religion, closes himself off in his palace until his daughters are kidnapped by rioting priests and he himself is assassinated. The set is evocative of the grandeur of the first scene—the same three registers reappear to depict a museum gallery and a college history class. Akhnaten, in his golden garb, is put on display in the museum, reduced to nothing more than a forgotten historical figure and a heretic in Egyptian history. A college professor, played by the same actor as Amenhotep III, attempts to teach his class about Akhnaten’s legacy but is rudely interrupted by a chaotic paper ball fight between his students. Disappointed, he exits the room but is hit once more by a paper ball. He casts one last glance back, full of hurt, then leaves the set for the last time. Slowly, Akhnaten’s ghost rises from his grave and joins the funerary procession that appeared in the opening scene, looking over the ruins of the city that he once ruled. Here, Glass seems to be criticizing the human tendency to trivialize history and how easily we forget it. This is perhaps also a comment on the transient and impermanent nature of our world—even the most glorious empires can fall. The opera is a powerful meditation on one’s place in the stream of history, forcing the audience to consider the past, present, and future.

Though “Akhnaten” runs for three and a half hours, every second of it is mesmerizing and full of surprises. It achieves a saturation of the senses, filling the audience with awe through its wondrous megalomania. As Glass’s repetitive arpeggios—already familiar to the audience at this point—come to a stop in the Epilogue, one seems to abruptly wake up from a fever dream. As I walk out into the bitter cold of December in New York, I am still unable to stop thinking about that splendid distant world created by “Akhnaten.”