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Review: AKHNATEN at the Met Opera

Read our critic's review - Now on stage through June 10th.

Review: AKHNATEN at the Met Opera

One of the greatest successes of recent Met seasons is Philip Glass's AKHNATEN, first seen in 2019. I saw it three times that year and fell under its spell each time.It is being revived this season.

The Met production has been seen in other venues and is the current gold-standard for the work.

When I was in school, we learned about the king, Akhnaten, as being an atypical Egyptian ruler; he embraced monotheism, which was contrary to the prevailing polytheistic belief.

He worshipped the sun god (Aten), which caused an uproar, and less than two decades after he assumed the throne, was deposed.

The opera was the last in a triptych of works by composer Philip Glass, celebrating men who impacted society.It's precedents were EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH in 1976 and SATYAGRAHA, (which celebrated Ghandi) in 1980. AKHNATEN premiered in Stuttgart in 1984. Glass spent time studying with sitarist Ravi Shankar and adopted a number of musical traits that reflect this.Most prominent is the repetitive, undulating quality of his musical line.

The concept of the present production revolves around the telling of the story of this rebel king by a narrator, Zachary James, who also plays Akhnaten's father Amenhotep IV as well as a modern-day archeologist.The story follows Akhnaten's accession to the throne of Egypt, his imposition of monotheism on his people, the rebellion of the priests against this idea, and finally his downfall. The staging employs a large group of jugglers whose constant movement reflects the repetitiveness of the musical score. The first act is the story of Amenhotep III and his crowning as King of Egypt.He later takes the name Akhnaten, in deference to the sun god.The centerpiece of the opera is the ascending to the throne by Akhnaten, and his utter embrace of this deity. This moment occurs at the end of Act Two; theethereal voicing of this hymn by Anthony Roth Costanzo is worth the price of a ticket.As he ascends a ladder, a chorus of followers lends an otherworldliness to the moment. The last segment of the opera straddles both ancient and modern times.Akhnaten is overthrown and his family dispersed. The final moments of the opera involve a college professor trying to retain the attention (unsuccessfully) of his students while relating the whereabouts of Egyptian ruins that are relevant to the story just told. The closing section depicts Akhnaten, his mother Queen Tye, and Nefertiti, chanting from beyond the grave.

Vocally, the evening is dominated by Anthony Roth Costanzo who has made the role of Akhnaten his calling card in recent years. His vibrant, strong countertenor is easily heard above the orchestral figures.He also has the ability to convert from "piano" to "forte" singing effortlessly. There is a fair amount of choreography that the principal singers have to master in the production and Costanzo brilliantly performs this, as do his castmates.Rihab Chaieb sings the role of Nefertiti, wife of the King, her dusky mezzo a beautiful complement to Costanzo's high-lying phrases.Their voices blend magically in their Act Two encounter. Disella Larusdottir sings Queen Tye, mother of the King.Her pleasing, clear soprano provides balance in the ensemble. The wonderful cast is rounded out by Aaron Blake, with his bright tenor voice, as the High Priest,Will Liverman,who starred so memorably in the opening night FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES, as General Horemhab,and the ubiquitousRichard Bernstein as Aye, Nefertiti's father. They all contributed solidly to the telling of this story.The daughters of Akhnaten were Lindsay Ohse, Katrina Thurman,Chrystal E. Williams, Annie Rosen,Olivia Vote, and Suzanne Hendrix.All did well in this difficult score.

The superb conductor was again, as in 2019, Karen Kamensek, who miraculously kept this difficult score together.The Met orchestra played flawlessly.The production was directed by Phelim McDermott with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Kevin Pollard, and lighting by Bruno Poet.The jugglers, who make up the Skills Ensemble and play such a vital role in the overall concept of the production, were led by Sean Gandini, the choreographer.They, deservedly, received a huge ovation along with the rest of the cast at the final curtain.

Try to obtain a ticket to this remarkable event, and it IS an event, before the final performance on June 10.


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