Saturday, November 23, 2019

Akhenaten at the Met

Just back from the Met Live in HD livestream of Philip Glass' "Akhenaten." It was absolutely wonderful, spellbinding, profound and deeply moving. The performance of the entire cast was simply remarkable - and it is in large part the incredible ensemble performance by the principals and the brilliant Met chorus. Anthony Roth Costanzo was outstanding as the title character. His "Hymn to the Sun" in act 2 was glorious - sung in English it was deeply moving. I found the text of the opera - in Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian (with a little Hebrew in one particular spot) and some English to be exceptionally brilliant. Zachary James played Amenhotep III, Akh's deceased father, who as the spirit of the dead King serves as narrator. He is a singer I am very familiar with. I have experienced Zachary's performances in Des Moines as Claggert and The Doctor (Wozzeck), in Nashville (the 3 Villians), St, Louis (Zacharias, Nabucco) and in Philadelphia as the Cook (Love for Three Oranges). He did not sing in this opera but served as the narrator and he was outstanding. The juggling was absolutely a brilliant idea which was woven into the staging - everyone juggled! The sets and costumes were also amazing. It was one of, if not THE most memorable HD I have attended yet.
I have played Glass and I know how hard it is, and I didn't play anything as hard as this score. The orchestra was incredible. With no violins in the score, the viola section took over leading the orchestra - bravi to them! The winds played as a unit, perfectly in tune and all of them apparently managed the feat of concentration and endurance it takes to play Glass. I want to mention the principal trumpet who on several occasions takes a leading solo role. He represents the Sun God - Aten. And when Akhnaten is singing his hymn to Akhnaten and Nefertiti are singing their love duet it is the trumpet that weaves and binds them all together. Beautiful playing.
I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the opera or the performance. They managed to bring forth the spirits of Ancient Egypt who lived through them. I loved it! But I do want to make a comment about some of the background material included in the program. Apparently Glass was inspired to compose this work by reading Freud's assessment of this forgotten Egyptian Pharoah. I should fill in some of the history. After Akhenaten became Pharoah he declared Aten to be the only god (or head god - this is unclear to me from what I have read). He then reigned for 17 years, but he was not a particularly good King. He built his special city which was dedicated to the Sun and there he removed himself taking little interest in the rest of the country. Eventually things fell apart, he was killed, his son - King Tut - was made Pharoah (that didn't last long, he was sickly) and the ancient pantheon was restored and the city of the sun destroyed. Akhenaten was effectively eliminated from the historical record. His name crossed out and any evidence of his religious experiment totally destroyed.
Now, Freud was one 19th century scholar who was intrigued by Akhenaten, and even more become known once the site of the city was uncovered and excavated by archeologists in the early 20th century. Freud in particular posited the hypothesis that Akhenaten was a religious visionary who established the first mono-theistic religion, and that it was Akhenaten who then inspired and influenced Moses. Glass seems to have accepted this hypothesis and his use of Psalm 104 following the Hymn to the Sun which is sung in Hebrew attempts to make this connection. I find this rather problematic however. First it should be noted that there are, as far as I can tell, few if any serious scholars of the Ancient Near East or Egyptology who accept this hypothesis as having any historical veracity. Then there is the whole questions as to whether what Akhenaten established was really mono-theistic. I personally do not think so. I think it is more likely that he was heno-theistic. Monotheism believes that there is only one god who exists, period; henotheism acknowledges the existence of many gods but lifts up one as the strongest and most important god. It is far too easy for us to read our own attitudes back into the history, which is what I think the hypothesis does. Lastly, Glass is quoted as stating that for him the great ancient civilization was not Greece but was Egypt. For me I find this statement naive. What about Ancient Sumer, Ancient Akkad - that is where writing developed after all and part of the libretto of this opera was in Ancient Akkadian. Certainly Egypt had moments of glory in their history, so did Greece, but for me the glorious beginning of civilization is to be found in Sumer and Akkad. The fact is that the history of this part of the world during this time is very complicated. We need to be careful not to simplify it. The fact is that Akhenaten was a failure. A fascinating failure, who was surrounded by some equalling fascinating other characters - such as Queen Tye, Nefertiti, General Horemhab.
But that said. This opera brings ancient Egypt alive and brings us into it. It was an incredible experience. There are still performances left at the Met and there should be an encore HD showing. Plus, it will probably appear on PBS later in the year. Don't miss it!!!!