NEW YORK – Applause for the scenery is often evidence of infrequent operagoers in the audience. But as much as the Metropolitan Opera’s Nov. 8 opening of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten resembled grand-opera-as-usual, covertly atypical elements revealed themselves everywhere.
Scenery isn’t the frosting in this opera; it’s part of the cake. And the younger, brainier audience that included some of today’s most distinguished composers (Missy Mazzoli, John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, Scott Johnson, Jake Heggie) generously acknowledged what could’ve passed for a high-budget Aida. Glass’ third and grandest opera had a great night for all the right reasons, including the magnetic vocal presence of Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role and what might normally be a thankless traffic cop assignment for conductor Karen Kamensek. And if traditional operagoers still find Glass operas a matter of death by arpeggios, they may well have been converted at this Met opening.
Akhnaten’s playing field will always require fundamental perceptual adjustments. Characters are represented more than they’re dramatized. The opera has a love duet, but it’s detached, dignified, and light years from the emotional gravity of Madama Butterfly. As with his earlier Einstein on the Beach, Glass uses the sung word not so much for visceral meaning as for its purely musical value. Mostly, the inner lives of the characters and the political events around them are handled with periodic spoken texts that can seem like a dramaturgical cop-out in pretentious King James English, especially when done as badly as in the original Sony-label recording of the piece. Yet all parties concerned on the Met stage had learned well from their predecessors while finding their way toward their own original viewpoints of the piece.
In contrast to the desert-brown plainness of the Houston Grand Opera’s 1984 U.S. premiere, Phelim McDermott’s production (already seen at the English National Opera) embraces the remote strangeness of ancient Egyptians — recognizably human underneath extravagant headgear, though real-life Akhnaten was stranger still, with a physiognomy that has led to speculation that he was a hermaphrodite. So why shouldn’t ancient Egypt be re-imagined with wild, extreme splendor, with characters wearing long luminescent trains framed by gigantic suns and moons, in stage pictures that were like a series of living, breathing, singing art installations? Always attuned to the score in multiple ways, the tableaux sometimes amplified the activity going on in the orchestra but mostly assumed a ceremonial, Kabuki-like slow-motion manner that majestically rode the waves of Glass’ burbling arpeggios.
Except for the jugglers. Gandini Juggling (an ensemble headed by Sean Gandini) was a major presence, creating a visual counterpart to Glass’ way of repeating commonplace musical cells until they lose all previous associations and fuse with the subject matter at hand. Amid one juggling event, objects resembling bowling pins were flying all over the stage, slowly becoming a kinetic extension of the scenery rather than anything you’ve seen at the circus.
However, much as Tom Pye’s set and projection design was entrancing, more dramatic contour was needed: Akhnaten was a revolutionary when he abolished the Egyptian culture of multiple gods. But when lighted bars — used as weapons in a stylized rebellion — were re-purposed into a new frame around the pharaoh, it was another abstracted poetic moment when a more cataclysmic one was called for.
Spoken texts, however, were delivered in a way that bolstered the narrative enormously. While Mabou Mines actor David Warrilow’s readings on the 1987 Akhnaten recording sounded officious and bizarrely irate, the Met’s Zachary James found sense, purpose, and emotional underpinning in the same words, no doubt thanks to his experience in Broadway theater, but with an added operatic sensibility. Though Met audiences mainly heard his speaking — with pitch-perfect line readings — James is a promising singer who will take on the title role of Don Giovanni next month in Wilmington.
In Glass’ earlier days, his pieces seemed like tightly-wound machines in which interpretive imagination was only a limited possibility. In fact, the New York City Opera recording of Satyagraha was reportedly made with the help of a click track. But like Dennis Russell Davies before her, American conductor Kamensek found the through-line of musical thought here. She also conveyed the possibilities of the score’s distinctive sound palette with the considerable aid of the Met chorus, which, thanks to chorus master Donald Palumbo, sang with an admirable sense of purpose.
Glass operas don’t always showcase their stars very well, and as Nefertiti, J’Nai Bridges left you wanting to hear her in a larger role. But as Akhnaten, countertenor Costanzo revealed how much the opera’s centerpiece, “Hymn to the Sun,” could be transformed by taking Glass’ music beyond face value. Because Costanzo’s voice hasn’t the slightest of projection problems at the Met (his lower range resembles that of Marilyn Horne), he was able to begin the scene with a hushed reverence that drew the ear closer to the music and build the scene with a kind of inner fire that showed that the music was about conviction rather than religious politics. Interestingly, the chorus in that scene was heard offstage so as not to clutter up the impressive stage picture of a giant sun that turned vivid colors — but also suggested that the larger Egyptian public wasn’t exactly embracing Akhnaten’s monotheistic beliefs.
A word about nudity: Costanzo’s body waxing — somehow demanded by a nude procession in early scenes of the production — was the story of the week in New York, and who would begrudge him that publicity? However, nudity in opera is tricky. It introduces a level of realism that breaks the spell of the imaginary world being created onstage. And that happened here. Given the unpleasantness of body waxing, I think Costanzo had grounds for a divo fit.