Review Summary: Simply epic. One of the best operas in the last 50 years.
During the Late Bronze Age, the Ancient Egyptian Empire entered its Eighteenth Dynasty, a point that witnessed some of Egypt’s most profound rulers such as Ahmose I, Amenhotep III, Tutankhamen and others. It was during this dynasty, that Akhenaten, son of Amenhotep III, introduced a radical and new method of religious understanding; monotheism. It is through Akhenaten’s eyes that the sun became the creator of all, the sun was the all Seeing Eye for one’s movement through the texture of the Earth. Notably, he wasn’t the first to have such a solitary view on belief, but it was he, who introduced the powerful motion, a motion which would reverberate for another 3000 years to the core of present day monotheistic religions.
Akhenaten’s rule spanned nearly two decades, and has often been examined heavily by authors and artists alike. Music itself however, has somewhat neglected this topic, but during the ever changing year of 1983, Philip Glass
, rendered perhaps one of the greatest operas of the late 20th century. In preceding years, Glass in his stubbornness to classical form, resounded his minimalist beliefs in both biographical operas, Einstein on the Beach
, however, this opera, entitled Akhnaten (note the omission of the vowel [e]) is a return to his original classical roots and influences. Don’t confuse yourself though, this isn’t a Wagner
, nor is it Mozart
’s Magic Flute
– the sound within the fortifications of the opera is pure Glass, with added allusions towards neo-baroque, neo-classical, and late romantic impressionism.
Within three separate acts, subtended by scenes, the life and times of Akhenten’s 17 year reign are explored. Initiating the idea, is a lengthy prelude and verse, which will certainly leave many audience members reminiscing the first time they heard his Glassworks suite, in fact a lot of the time, one may feel that Glassworks is a prelude to much of the melodic flow forged inside the stave of the opera. Time to switch off, same old Glass? No, keep on listening.
The first act explores the events of Amenhotep III’s death, through a percussive tribal corroboree, the coronation of Akhenaten to the throne, and a commemorative piece, conducive towards Glass’ earlier dwellings. Each character here, who represent an area of the vocal range from bass to mezzo soprano, introduce themselves through varied performances. Indeed, if listener by this time is expecting anything other then cyclic rhythms, built upon similar chords, then perhaps this opera isn’t for them. It suffers greatly from the first listen because moving into the appropriate frame of mind can be difficult, especially if the listener is well affixed inside more euphoric types of music i.e. progressive, early romantic era music, etc. However, if they are prepared to sit through, and attempt to understand the lining of the music, then the listening experience should leave them fairly content.
Certainly like any major work of this magnitude, it will drag along the annoying moments of tedium. Entire songs don’t suffer here, instead the motifs inside them do. The listener should establish for themselves what makes them tick and what doesn’t; part of what make the music from Glass so subjective towards its listener, and can therefore be felt as either good or bad equally. In addition, the librettos offered by the narrator have to sometimes be studies to be thoroughly understood, but mostly they are very important for offering needed rest stops, and the required information for the listener. Without them, the opera would feel just like a collection of time-stretched themes from Glassworks
As Glass is the author this work, he thoroughly researched the life of Akhenaten, and those around him. From this, movements such as “The City, Dance [Conclusion]”
really quantify what he is capable of producing musically, when provided with equal portions of musical knowledge and luscious mythical terrain. Others in this category include the “Hymn”
from Act II which explores the time when the king was at his most influential, religiously. It is also a point where the character of Akhenaten, played by the countertenor, curates a lengthy aria, and also the point of the operas where his monotheistic religious authority was to blanket the land, and subsequently the whole world thereafter.
Act III initiates the fall of any rulers reign. Ironically, even though he was arguably the most influential character of Egypt, his reign lasted a mere 17 years, not the shortest reign, but short by the standards of other long time rulers. It is here that the music shifts back to a more subdued emotion. The “Epilogue”
concludes the opera as epic as what it began, through the introduction/conclusion of the characters, who are now merely ghosts on stage. In one word, that is what this opera is – epic
. There is no moment where this leaves the stage, nor does it leave the listener once it has exceeded its long duration. It is arguably Glass’ best work from his pure minimalstic era, which saw both interesting and mediocre works, this one being of course one of the more interesting for its concept, but above all wonderful array of Glass’ influences from every era of classical and modern music.