Published On: Fri, May 20th, 2022

Review: Grammy-Winning ‘Akhnaten’ Returns to the Met Opera


It wasn’t so long ago this season — just January — that the Metropolitan Opera’s programming was about as classic as it gets: tried-and-true works by Verdi, Puccini and Mozart.

But scan the coming weeks, and you’ll find what looks like a better, more adventurous company. On Thursday, Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” returned for the first time since its Met debut, in 2019, joining the American premiere last week of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet.” Next to open, on May 30, is a revival of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” in a staging by Jonathan Miller that is older but more stylish than many at the house. By June, “Rigoletto” will stand alone as a holdout of the core repertory.

While a break from the Met’s standard programming, “Akhnaten” — the final installment, from 1984, in Glass’s trilogy of “portrait” operas, after the pathbreaking “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha,” a meditation on Gandhi’s nonviolent movement — may be a surer bet than, say, “Tosca.” When “Akhnaten” belatedly arrived there a few years ago, it was a critical and box office success, one that attracted a visibly younger audience.

That run eventually made its way onto a recording that recently won a Grammy Award. This revival is something of a victory lap, with the same conductor and nearly the same cast. Even Thursday’s audience seemed transported from those earlier days. With artists like Erin Markey and Justin Vivian Bond mingling on the theater’s promenade, the scene was more Joe’s Pub than Lincoln Center.

There were, though, some crucial differences from 2019. Phelim McDermott’s production, now more lived-in, unfolded with elegant inevitability rather than effort; the score was executed with a clarity and drive absent on the often slack album. And while “Akhnaten” may be one of Glass’s tributes to great men who changed the world — through science, politics and faith — Thursday’s performance of it made a persuasive argument for where the real power lies: with the women.

For example, the mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb, the cast’s newcomer, as Nefertiti, Akhnaten’s wife. Long presented at the Met in operas from the 18th and 19th centuries, she was singing a new kind of role on Thursday, one she seized with assurance and ringing might. As a partner for Anthony Roth Costanzo, the countertenor who has a virtual monopoly on the title role in this production, her lush, vibrato-rich sound was a productive contrast to his ethereal purity — she grounded and he celestial, they met somewhere in the middle for their long, hypnotically sensual love duet.

More powerful yet was the soprano Disella Larusdottir as Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother. Penetrating and resonant, she shot out burst-like phrases with nearly mechanical exactitude and endurance, but was also expressive within the discipline. It’s Akhnaten, pioneering a kind of monotheism in his worship of the sun god Aten, who banishes the priests from the temple in Act II. On Thursday, though, the attack seemed to come from Queen Tye, so frightening and forceful was Larusdottir in her delivery.

The conductor Karen Kamensek held together what can be an unwieldy production and led a Met Orchestra much more reliably capable than in 2019. She and the ensemble set the tone with the opera’s mood-altering, time-bending prelude. On the recording, propulsive, shifting arpeggios come off as sluggish, with lapses of legato phrasing. Returned to with more experience, along with noticeably more control, the score moved along with crisp transparency and a tense momentum that didn’t let up in the first act. The instrumentalists still have work to do, though. As the show went on, the strings occasionally slid into soft articulation; and the brasses suffered from clumsiness and imprecision, mistakes that can’t be hidden in music that lives or dies on accuracy.

McDermott’s production similarly exposes its performers: not only the singers but also a dozen jugglers in catsuits, including Sean Gandini, the show’s choreographer. As scrappy as it is ornate, the staging — with imaginative, thrift-store-find costumes by Kevin Pollard and sets to match by Tom Pye, and artful lighting by Bruno Poet — demands the patience and steadiness of yoga in its movement, as well as an active eye for anyone watching. (At one point, one of Gandini’s people balances atop a large rolling wheel while, on scaffolding above, jugglers toss balls as the chorus does a version of the same thing; playing out amid the spectacle is the funeral of Akhnaten’s father.)

It can be a lot to take in, and the metaphor of juggling — its spheres redolent of Akhnaten’s precious sun, their constant and unpredictable motion as precarious as his reign — proves its point too quickly to go on for as long as it does. As ritual, it doesn’t achieve the transcendence of McDermott’s “Satyagraha,” one of the Met’s finest productions, a staging whose visual diversity and inventiveness give way to sublime austerity.

The choreography, though, does have its awe-inspiring moments, such as when juggling pins fly around Aaron Blake, as the High Priest of Amon, who — despite the risk of being hit by one — doesn’t even suggest a flinch while singing with a full-bodied tenor sound. Blake’s character is joined by Aye (the bass Richard Bernstein) and General Horemhab (the baritone Will Liverman) to form a tripartite resistance to Akhnaten’s rule, inciting the revolt that ends it and restores the old religious order. The arc of the pharaoh’s reign is recounted in spoken passages by Zachary James, whose towering presence and booming declamations feel thrillingly neither of this time nor world.

James assumes the role of a lecturing professor near the opera’s ending, while Costanzo’s Akhnaten appears as a museum display. This is how we remember, McDermott is saying: through history, through exhibition, through the pageantry of opera performance. Glass makes his own version of that point with the centerpiece aria, “Hymn to the Sun,” a setting of a prayer to Aten that ends with an offstage chorus singing the text of Psalm 104 — tracing a direct line from Akhnaten to the monotheism that dominates today.

As if that weren’t enough to place Akhnaten in the pantheon of great innovators, the final scene’s music introduces a subtle quotation from “Einstein on the Beach.” Here, Glass doesn’t tidily package his “portraits” series as much as acknowledge it. On Thursday, though, that intrusion was also a reminder: After the triumphs of “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten,” when will the Met and McDermott give Einstein his due with a production of his own?

Akhnaten
Through June 10 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.



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