MET Opera House- Lincoln Center– Tuesday November 12th, 2019
This week, one of the most spectacular, timeless, mystical, and otherworldly operas/theater extravaganza of the season, and possibly of all times, awaits us; thanks to the genius of a visionary, a contemporary American composer, who needs no introduction.
How about that, friends?
Our remarkable, unconventional, and outlandish opera, Akhnaten, is the final installment of Philip Glass’ Portrait Trilogy, a trilogy depicting profoundly influential leaders, whose personal visions, deeply impacted their times; through ideas, rather than brutal military force.
And Glass’ Akhnaten, is specifically, primarily about, a deep religious revolution, introduced by a young Pharaoh named “Akhnaten”, establishing monotheism for the very first time in Ancient Egypt’s polytheist civilization.
Interestingly also, the revolution he brought on in Ancient Egypt in terms of religion, tradition, respect for others, love, the arts and language, will be soon fully erased from history, shortly after the Pharaoh’s death.
Keep also in mind, that “Akhnaten”, this highly unusual “opera” set around 1350 B.C.E., dispenses limited text in the libretto (also by Glass), and is also, (which is pretty unorthodox), sang in four different languages (English, Akkadian, Ancient Egyptian and Hebrew).
So, in a nutshell, and to sum up what this extraordinarily unconventional masterpiece is about, “Akhnaten” depicts elegantly, in 3 acts, the young Pharaoh’s life, his 17 year complex reign, and the profound religious revolution birthing monotheism, Akhnaten brings forth.
Also, keep in mind that this young Pharaoh, was initially known, before his revolutionary new ideas, as Amenhotep IV; and as he brought upon his new “order”, the young Pharaoh then, renamed himself Akhnaten; meaning “the spirit of Aten, the sun disk”; Aten, being a “form” of the Sun god, Ra.
An invisible and unseen force of course, but real to Akhnaten, which inspires his unconventional and beautiful legacy.
And friends, here are a few final elements, to the context of this opera to keep in mind, in my opinion; let me remind you that “Akhnaten” the opera, is the final installment of Glass’ “Portrait” Trilogy, about brilliant visionary geniuses ideas, who transformed deeply their times; and “Akhnaten” follows the first “Portrait” installment entitled “Einstein on the beach” about Einstein’s revolutionary views on space and time; and “Akhnaten” follows as well, the second “Portrait” installment called “Satyagraha”, about non violence, civil resistance, especially advocated by Gandhi against British rule in India. And with “Akhnaten”, the views of this compelling revolutionary young Pharaoh on tradition as a whole (religion, society, family, couples, the arts and language), are breathtaking as well.
Just like Tolkien wrote also new languages, to tell his story/stories/tales; and his stories, I am sure, would have fascinated Akhnaten:
Let’s take a look at this next excerpt, about Tolkien’s invented languages, in an animated discussion with a respected professor, in this wonderful dialogue from “Tolkien” (2019) by Karukoski:
As Akhnaten would have loved also, I am sure, this eccentric translator of Ancient Egyptian tablets, from the 1994 “Stargate” film from Emmerich:
But let’s get back to Akhnaten, the opera, and its astounding visual poetry for a second: what spectacular, lavish, luxuriant, magical, awe-inspiring, spell-binding, monumental, lyrically elegant, abstract and refined production by Phelim Mc Dermott, to depict Akhnaten’s world, Akhnaten’s visions for society, not only in matters of religion, but regarding respect for others, regarding love of family, his mother, Tye, a Queen Consort/advisor especially, certainly, during his young years, love for his daughters, his Nefertiti will borne for him.
But also, Akhnaten, the man, as well, embodies, with his beloved and fabulously beautiful Queen Nefertiti, an ideal and very modern expression in my view, of romantic love, of how fabulously happy modern couples could be/are, for some; a love and beauty epitomized by his one and only true, profond, rich and poetic love; a passionate, erotic, fun, intellectual, engaging, joyful, giving, playful, yet comforting and respectful love for one another, between him, and his gorgeous, and tantalizing Nefertiti; who not only, was a wife to Akhnaten, but also, most probably, as well, a consort ruler or advisor to him, during his 17 year reign, called the Amarna period.
How about that?
Isn’t it just riveting?
And also, incredibly compelling?
And what superb, modern, trance-like music and dramatic expressive juggling, as if the rhythmically, trance-like, Glass composition and notes, were dancing off of the score, bouncing into an eerie, unique, awe-inspiring universe.
So distinctively, unequivocally, Glass trademarked!
Let’s take a look:
And what unbelievably talented performers last Tuesday, at the MET, to depict the main characters of this iconic piece of Egyptian history: in particular, the American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, was and is, pure perfection as Akhnaten: such musicality, sensitivity, partnership especially with his Nefertiti; sang with beautiful rich tones (Nefertiti) by J’Nai Bridges, the sumptuous American mezzo, as well as, what great unity with his mother Queen Tye, sung with subtlety and yet strength, by Icelander soprano Dìsella Làrusdóttir. And another character, needs also to be commended for his performance; and that was/is fabulously powerful Zachary James, the exceptionally talented bass baritone American: what a stage presence, as Amenhotep III (Akhnaten’s father and ghost, narrating the story), and as a professor, as well, lecturing about Ancient Egypt’s history, at the end of the opera.
And finally, what masterful conducting by Maestro Karen Kamensek, so incredibly sensitive yet powerful!
Let’s watch a short excerpt, of what, Anthony Roth Costanzo, in the title role, has to say, about his complex and compelling character:
Let’s watch this short clip:
So let’s take a look at the highlights of the story, that particularly impress me:
The opera starts off with the death of Amenhotep III, and a funeral sacred ceremony, occurring in the Book of the Dead, in which the organs of the pharaoh, are placed carefully in canopy jars, while the body is being embalmed, the pharaoh’s heart being weighed against a feather.
Before listening to the music, let’s take a look at another depiction of the Egyptian Underworld, with scenes from “Gods of Egypt” (2016) by Proyas relating to Anubis, God of the Dead; and the ritual of the weighing with a feather. In addition, the human heroine, Zaya, believes unconditionally in Horus Ra, even though he is imperfect, and her faith in him, will lead also others, human and gods, to help Horus Ra, become the best possible protector of his people, and as such, Horus Ra, will then, to show his gratitude to Zaya, for her faith in him; prove it to Zaya, by convincing Anubis, to let her get back to Earth from the Underworld!
Let’s watch a short clip of Anubis’ awesome power; and a gripping feather scene:
And now, let’s get back to listening to our (Akhnaten) opera’s haunting and beautiful funeral music, which kicks off Act I:
And believe it or not, but this music is so incredibly inspiring, that even in the world of ballet, it has also been chosen, in wonderful works by Robbins, and let’s now listen, to what Justin Peck at the NYCB, has to say about the exhilaration he feels, the angular nature of certain steps, the unusual postures, when dancing on this piece of music, the athleticism and artistry needed, and the camaraderie between dancers on this intense piece of music, which in this instance, is no longer about a funeral, but to me (at least), more about overcoming obstacles.
Let’s watch a short excerpt:
The second excerpt of Act I, which really impressed me, is the end of Act I, called “The Windows of Appearances”, in which the young Pharaoh, reveals his intentions to introduce a monotheistic religion, and changes his name Amenhotep IV, to Akhnaten; and here, let’s watch Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye, all glorify Aten, a form of the sun god Ra.
Let’s watch this scene, and listen to the beauty of the haunting and repetitive rhythms, and the warm bells:
In Act II, after having lead a revolt, banishing the old religion, and replacing it, with his new monotheistic order, Akhnaten is ready to affirm his eternal love to Nefertiti.
But before, let’s read a hymn poem glorifying Aten, and his great and fabulously beautiful, Queen Nefertiti:
“How manifold it is, what thou hast made! They are hidden from the face (of man). O sole god, like whom there is no other! Thou didst create the world according to thy desire, whilst thou wert alone: all men, cattle, and wild beasts, whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet, and what is on high, flying with its wings.The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt, thou settest every man in his place, thou suppliest their necessities: everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.Their tongues are separate in speech, and their natures as well;Their skins are distinguished, as thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.Thou makest a Nile in the underworld, thou bringest forth as thou desirest To maintain the people (of Egypt) according as thou madest them for thyself, the lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them, the lord of every land, rising for them,The Aton of the day, great of majesty.You are in my heart,There is no other who knows you, only your son, Neferkheprure, Sole one of Re (Akhnaten), whom you have taught your ways and your might.[Those on] earth come from your hand as you made them.When you have dawned they live.When you set they die;You yourself are lifetime, one lives by you. All eyes are on [your] beauty until you set. All labor ceases when you rest in the west;When you rise you stir [everyone] for the King, every leg is on the move since you founded the earth. You rouse them for your son who came from your body. The King who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands, Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re,The Son of Re who lives by Maat. the Lord of crowns, Akhenaten, great in his lifetime;(And) the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti, living forever”.
Let’s now listen to the fabulous love scene, between Akhnaten and Nefertiti, my favorite scene from Act II.
But first, let’s read the fabulously poetic text, included in this clip, translated in english, and as a prelude, let’s listen to the haunting narrator who summarizes in english, the feelings the two love birds, have for each other.
And you will hear the unusual sound, that comes from the countertenor male singer (a deliberate choice, this neutral gender sound), because Akhnaten in many ways is an unusual man; he is more, than just a man, in many ways, he is almost, close to a god, as his god inspires all these revolutionary ideas). Let’s now listen to the unusual harmony, which pours out of this unusual sound, Let’s even, listen intently; to the magic this amazing countertenor and his soprano, make together; brought on, by their love and desire for each other.
Let’s now read another poem, inspired by Nefertiti’s beauty:
Beneath the skies of goddess Nuit
There lies my passion’s sole pursuit …
It’s her- whose flesh is beauty’s claim-
A Nubian of Pharaoh’s name:
Beauteous Nefertiti- hail …
Arise, dear love, leave crook and flail,
And let us from this palace flee
So we in silent love can be.
The moon has known our hidden plight,
And we her sacred silver light-
And all in company as one
Our secret keep from Aten’s sun.
How joyful though this hidden pledge
That loving wades the water’s edge,
That hand in hand reflects the bliss
Of lovers raptured in a kiss.
But now that crimson light and hue
Disperses all our midnight blue,
And soon that sacred god will rise
And cast his cope upon our skies.
So know, before alas we part,
That you, dear queen, are all my heart;
That even now I pine to see
Tomorrow’s moon and you with me.
And in the second Act, let’s listen to one of the other most beautiful piece, musically (to me at least), inspired by old texts and poems and the famous Ancient Testament Psalm 104.
And what is this “aria”/ “scene” about?
It is about Akhnaten singing a private prayer to his god. His vision of a new religion and society is complete.
Let’s read first, one of the texts, that inspired this private prayer:
1 Praise the Lord, my soul.
Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
4 He makes winds his messengers,[a]
flames of fire his servants.
5 He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
8 they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.
9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.
10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.
16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.
18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.
19 He made the moon to mark the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
20 You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
21 The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.
22 The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.
23 Then people go out to their work,
to their labor until evening.
24 How many are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
26 There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
27 All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
28 When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
29 When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
30 When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.
35 But may sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
Praise the Lord.[b]
Let’s now, listen to the astoundingly beautiful opera excerpt, so incredibly trance like, and moving:
Isn’t it gorgeous?
And in Act III, as Akhnaten and his Nefertiti dwell in their own personal, insular world, of their own creation, in isolation, unrest grows in the city.
And Akhnaten is ultimately killed, for having not taken enough interest in his people, and having devoted all his attention, to his god, and his beautiful Nefertiti, and whose hand he so loves holding, as depicted below, in this beautiful artwork.
The spirit of Akhnaten’s father mourns the passing of his son, while the new young Tutankhamun, is crowned; in a ceremony similar, to the one found at the beginning of the opera. Old polytheistic religion is restored, while a professor lectures young students, about Ancient Egypt history.
What a powerful ending, ladies and gents.
Let’s now, listen to the epilogue in which, the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye, are once again, heard from the ancient world or/underworld.
So haunting and beautiful.
What a show, what an astounding evening, what a visual and musical feast for all, to enjoy again and again, if you ask me!
And to end this long and imaginative post, let me share a few beautiful dance numbers, for Akhnaten and his Nefertiti, a wonderful poem by Charles Guerin, and two amazingly romantic songs by an iconic French singer.
From the Taurog movie “Words and music” (1948), let’s (re)discover this wonderfully romantic scene, which is sure to melt the heart of Akhnaten and his Nefertiti:
From the Donen movie “Deep in my heart” (1954), let’s watch this fabulously erotic dance, for Akhnaten and his Nefertiti:
And now, let’s read again, for our Egyptian love birds, from Charles Guerin, this wonderfully romantic poem:
L’amour nous fait trembler
L’amour nous fait trembler comme un jeune feuillage,
Car chacun de nous deux a peur du même instant.
« Mon bien-aimé, dis-tu très bas, je t’aime tant…
Laisse… Ferme les yeux… Ne parle pas… Sois sage… »
Je te devine proche au feu de ton visage.
Ma tempe en fièvre bat contre ton cœur battant.
Et, le cou dans tes bras, je frissonne en sentant
Ta gorge nue et sa fraîcheur de coquillage.
Ecoute au gré du vent la glycine frémir.
C’est le soir ; il est doux d’être seuls sur la terre,
L’un à l’autre, muets et faibles de désir.
D’un baiser délicat tu m’ouvres la paupière ;
Je te vois, et, confuse, avec un long soupir,
Tu souris dans l’attente heureuse du mystère.
Isn’t it fabulous?
And last but not least, let’s listen to two wonderful songs, by our Edith Piaf, who knew a few things about love:
First, let’s sing along this iconic tune, about living one’s life, as if it were eternally seen, through pink/rosy glasses:
And the last song, is about the romantic views about love:
I am sure Akhnaten and his Nefertiti would love all these expressions of love!
Eternal butterflies 😊