Composer: Philip Glass
Librettist: Philip Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, and Jerome Robbins
Conductor: Karen Kamensek
Producer/Director: Phelim McDermott
Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Constanzo
Nefertiti: J’Nai Bridges
Queen Tye: Disella Larusdottir
Seeing the “SOLD OUT” label appear on a concert or opera poster is always a heart-warming sight for any music lover, especially if they already have a ticket. And it is an even bigger thrill when the program is kind of out of left field in a supposedly open-minded city that is surprisingly conservative in its musical tastes.
Not that Philip Glass’ music is that esoteric anymore, of course, but filling up the cavernous Metropolitan opera house, and with a somewhat younger-looking audience too, is still a feat that must be acknowledged for any composer, most particularly when the opera is far from traditional (Granted, Akhnaten includes a show-stopping love duet in the middle and the hero’s ghastly death toward the end).
My mom, who had gone to see it during her busy New York stay, had lamented the lack of action and standard arias, but had nevertheless conceded some redeeming qualities such as amazing visuals and overall originality. And the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, which probably at least partly explains the sold-out status.
I do not need any incentives to go listen to Philip Glass’ music as soon as an opportunity arises. So I had made sure to buy a matinee ticket when they became available, a few months ago, to have as much energy as possible to dedicate to the performance, and last Saturday I finally walked down Christmas tree-lined Broadway on a gorgeous sunny afternoon.
Philip Glass’ music is famous for its own, very distinctive, style, but it can still very much adapt to any story. That said, the ever-intrepid composer still managed not only to dig out an eye-opening plot, but also to come up with a mostly unintelligible libretto essentially made of archaic languages and a few spoken English interventions by The Scribe, to create a boldly unusual experience that combines ancient Egypt, religious upheaval and gender fluidity.
As Akhnaten, the monotheist sun-worshiper pharaoh who decides to impose his creed on his reluctant people and was not only murdered, but also pretty much wiped out from historical records for his audacity, American countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo simply own the role.
If for no other reason, he could have probably made Met history by being the first male singer to appear in full frontal nudity. But he quickly proved that he also had the singing and acting chops necessary to make a lasting impression under more conventional circumstances. With his ethereally wide-ranging voice and graceful presence, Constanzo was both understated and yet powerful as the mysteriously androgynous figure in the center of the narrative.
As Akhnaten’s devoted wife Nefertiti, American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges was a strong and unbreakable ally, with a plush and exciting voice that wonderfully intertwined with Constanzo’s during their love duet.
Not to be outdone, Icelandic soprano Disella Larusdottir was a magnetic Queen Tye, even if the weird ornament she had proudly standing on the top of her head looked more like a feather duster than anything remotely stately.
The Met’s huge stage can be a challenge to use efficiently, but set and projection designer Tom Pye clearly embraced it and came up with consistently smart and wildly inventive sets, partly steampunk, partly colorful exoticism, which allowed the various scenes to transition seamlessly at their own pace, which could probably be best described as hypnotic slow motion. As long as you were willing to go along with this highly stylized world, the rewards were manifold.
While costume designer Kevin Pollard occasionally went a bit overboard (Why on earth would you put a skull in top of a Victorian top hat?), the outfits were positively eye-popping. We’re talking about scorched earth-inspired cat suits for the jugglers, Akhnaten’s sumptuous glittery gown for his coronation, as well as the reigning couple’s identical plain scarlet robes with endless trains that ended up forming one beautiful red-hot symbol of physical and spiritual love during their passionate embrace.
Speaking of the jugglers, a lot has been written about their various high-flying routines scattered throughout the entire performance, and how much was actually enough. I am in fact not sure we needed to see them as often as we did, but on the other hand, I also found them particularly well integrated into the music and visuals, so I say: “Let them juggle!”
At curtain call, Anthony Roth Constanzo rightfully got his roof-raising ovation, but not quite as roof-raising as Philip Glass himself. And rightfully so too, since the composer has succeeded in writing a score that is gently lyrical, brilliantly texturized, endlessly flexible and just plain unique with sounds created through the combination of the lower instrumental output of the violin-less orchestra and the higher range of the leading voices. American maestra Karen Kamensek unquestionably distinguished herself for her first conducting gig at the Met, and the orchestra responded eagerly to her.
During the intermissions and after the performance, as I was shamelessly eave-dropping on my fellow opera-goers, opinions ranged from the occasional “weird” and “interesting” to the vast majority of “fabulous.” And while it is not always the case, this time I am whole-heartedly joining the majority.