Ankh, ankh en mitak

(Live life, thou shalt not die)

Open are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts

Clouds darken the sky
The stars rain down
The constellations stagger
The bones of the hell houds tremble
The porters are silent
When they see this king
Dawning as a soul…


In 1988, I turned 21 years old.  That year, as I found my new calling in history, I was immersed in the study of the ancient Near East with what become my favourite undergraduate professor, Dr. Jack Balcer.  An accomplished archaeologist who spoke or read 12 languages and who was exacting about the proper use of the Chicago Style and correct spacing (that’s two spaces after that period–and yes, he was counting), he challenged me–and all his students–to rise to excellence.  I adored the man, with his red-rimmed eyeglasses, his parting words at the end of each class (“Don’t get run over!”) and his obvious love for his students.

He also introduced me to the archaeological site of Amarna, and to the mysterious figure of Akhenaten, the “heretic pharoah” who, in the fourteenth century BC,  had turned to the worship of a singular deity, the Aten (or sun disk), only to have been symbolically erased from all subsequent history by his successors, who returned to traditional Egyptian polytheism. A later course in Egyptian art history unfolded even more fascinating information, particularly the naturalistic style of his reign, a marked break with earlier traditions, a style that extended to the depiction of Akhenaten himself.  No one looks quite like he does, with his long narrow face, full lips, wide hips, and almost feminine-looking body.  And no other Egyptian ruler is ever portrayed as showing obvious affection to his family like he does.  Between these mysteries and the religious revolution he promoted, he’s one of history’s enigmas.  And that story proved irresistible to composer Philip Glass, who in 1984 wrote the opera Akhnaten about him.

I discovered Glass’s opera at about the same time I learned about Akhenaten. And my historian’s heart was captured before I even heard a note because Glass’s libretto was comprised of primary source material, much of it in the original languages–the same material I had studied in my classes.  But I was already familiar with–and liked–Glass’s minimalist style, which in the 80s was still fairly new and faintly radical.  Some of my musician friends were rather dismissive of minimalism, but most of them were willing to give it a try, and I attended concerts in those last two years of both Glass’s music (in a multimedia presentation) and Steve Reich’s.   I bought Akhnaten on CD and listened to it over and over again.  To me, it in a way became the music of ancient Egypt.

So when I heard the Metropolitan Opera was mounting a production of Akhnaten this year, and that I could go to a local movie theatre and see it broadcast live in HD, I couldn’t not go.  I’m so glad I did.  The music, amazing that it is, is still filled with long, repetitive passages–passages that come alive when suddenly you have the visual component added to the experience.

This production, helmed by Phelim McDermott, has previously played in London and Los Angeles.  A lot of operas have gorgeous sets and costumes, and some involve choreography as well, but this one really transcended the idea of set dressing into making the visual elements stand beside the music as art in an equal partnership.

Glass’ music is fairly abstract, with the repetitive aspects of minimalism in many ways working against traditional Western ideas of how to express emotion in music.  It is very, very easy to make this music very mathematical and mechanical.  So how to take the performance beyond the abstract, to make the audience care about these characters?  McDermott’s answer was to bring out the meditative, ritualistic, and symbolic aspects.  The opening act is really nothing but an extended ritual–the funerary rites of the deceased Amenhotep III, and the ascension of his son, Amenhotep IV, who would change his name to Akhenaten (or Akhnaten, as it is spelled in the opera).   In this production, the long orchestral prelude accompanies a screen of abstract colours on which is projected a series of hieroglyphic-like symbols.   When the curtain finally rises, we see along the top of the stage, through a partially opaque freize, several human figures wearing animal heads,  changing their positions along with the music, evoking bands seen in Egyptian artwork–very flat and two dimensional.  The Scribe–a speaking role which in this production is also the embodiment of Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III–intones lines in English from the Old Kingdom Pyramid texts about the entrance of a king into the afterlife (the text at the beginning of this post).  We then see that the body of the deceased pharaoh is being prepared for its journey into the afterlife.  His wife, Queen Tye, is given his heart.

It’s here that I notice that the costumes are an interesting mix of Egyptian and Victorian (almost steampunk) elements.  The Queen wears a traditional Egyptian Isis headdress along with a gown in a eclectic Victorian style, but with masses of pearls and beads around her neck. She also wears white gloves, stained red by the blood of her husband’s heart.  Guided by three figures representing the Establishment –the High Priest of Amon, wearing what is more or less a bishop’s mitre and cope, but with Egyptian elements added; Aye, dressed in a suit and top hat with a skull on top, and Horemhab, who wears khaki military gear from the chest down and an ornate Egyptian collar,–Queen Tye moves to place the heart on a large set of scales, to be weighed against a feather.  Second major Egyptian geekery moment in the opera for me:  This visual comes directly from the Book of the Dead.  The program indicates that the heart must be light as a feather to travel into the afterlife.  Of course, it’s more than that. The feather is a symbol of ma’at, the Egyptian embodiment (worshiped as a goddess) of truth, justice, balance, and harmony.  In the Egyptian underworld, the heart of each deceased person was weighed against that feather, representing ma’at.  If the heart were lighter or equal in weight to the feather, this meant that the deceased had lived a virtuous life and would live on in the afterworld.  Of course, this weighing wasn’t actually part of the funeral rite, but seeing it dramatized symbolically was incredibly powerful.

It should be noted that all of this “action” flowed incredibly slowly as the chorus, located in two rows of “friezes” above the area where the funeral rites are taking place, sing lines from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Ankh, ankh, en mitak/Yewk er he en heh/Aha en heh) which were not provided in any kind of surtitles in the production. The effect, again, is several rows of Egyptian artwork, static, almost motionless.   It is here that we first see the other recurring motif of the production–ten jugglers dressed in costumes that make them seem as if they are the embodiment of the earth itself, their balls depicting in their trajectories the arpeggios and movement in the music itself.  Each chorus member also has balls, which they shift in unison in time to the music.

The scenes which follow show the preparation and coronation of the new king.  He is taken out from a large sarcophagus in the shape of Anubis, emphasizing his role as the reembodiment of the ruler of Egypt in living form.  This is our first glimpse of who will shortly become Akhnaten, but he is at this point Amenhotep IV.  In this broadcast, he wore nothing but a loincloth, because apparently, his usual outfit–nothing at all–was deemed a little too racy for broadcast around the world.  He is then ritually dressed by attendants, being given first jodphur-type pants, then a pannier structure, and then finally, an elaborate coat/gown (very 17th century in feel).  (We got to see this piece during intermission, and it is absolutely encrusted with gold,  found jewel pieces and large baby doll faces).   Finally, he is crowned with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt (a costume piece authentic in shape and feel, but when seen up close also turns out to be covered in found jewels and a doll’s face where one might normally see a cobra in Egyptian art).  This is all accompanied by the Amon Priest, Horemhab, and Aye, before the Scribe (in the form of his deceased father) recites his royal titles as they were before he took up his new name.

In the last scene of the act, the new king is joined by his wife, Nefertiti, and his mother, Queen Tye, at the Window of Appearances.  This is the first time Akhnaten reveals his beliefs, and the first time we hear his voice, singing an Egyptian text referring to a single god as creator of all things.  Up until this point, all of the music has been dominated by men’s voices, with the trio of the High Priest, Horemhab, and Aye performing the funeral rites together.   Akhnaten sings the first verse by himself, and here countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s voice is absolutely otherworldly and scarily, hair-raisingly, shiver-inducingly high.  The next stanza he sings with his mother Tye, played by Disella Larusdottir, and her soprano voice intertwines with his.  The third stanza he sings with Nefertiti, his wife, whose voice mezzo voice enters lower than his, and finally, the three sing together as the disk of the sun arises behind them.  Attendants carrying lighted rods first depict the rays of the sun, then join them together to enclose the three figures within a lighted box as long ribbons are extended to the floor below, streaming down from the sun-disk.  This is a direct reference to the way the Aten and its rays is portrayed in Amarna-era art.

Act II begins with the fall of the old order.  The High Priest, Horemhab, and Aye sing a song to Amon as attendants lay out objects around them as wards of protection.  These turn out to be juggling clubs, which are then taken up by the jugglers in the overthrow of the Temple, led by Akhnaten in a military-style breastplate.  The entire attack occurs (as does everything in the opera) in slow motion, with the clubs symbolizing weapons.  At one point, they’re even arranged to resemble bows and arrows.  The priests are thus driven out of the Temple.  In the next scene, Akhnaten and Nefertiti sing a love duet.  The text is first recited in English by the Scribe–sounding like the invocation of a deity and then sung by Nefertiti and Akhnaten to each other. Here, the two singers enter from opposite sides of the stage, wearing flowing, simple red gowns with trains that stretch out behind them offstage.  When they finally reach each other, they entwine, stepping over each other’s train so they literally twist together, and share a kiss. Once again, the ritualistic nature of the choreography serves to augment the passion heard in the words.  It almost visibly flows out of both Akhnaten and Nefertiti, even though they are almost motionless.   From here on out, flowing, loose clothing in the colours of the sun serve as a visual marker symbolizing the new regime.

What follows is the founding of the city of Akhetaten, personified by the jugglers joyfully improvising and playing with larger balls, in the glow of an enormous inflated sun disk.  Before this, the Scribe reads, in English, text from the actual boundary markers found at the Amarna site detailing how the location was chosen.  The final scene, sung as Akhnaten, wearing a flowing orange gown with a diaphanous train, ascends a set of stairs in front of the enormous sun disk, is the Hymn, translated into English, praising the living Aten as the only god.  Akhnaten declares that he is the son of the Aten, the only one who knows the God and his plans.  At the end, an offstage chorus sings Old Testament texts in Hebrew that in many ways mirror Akhnaten’s hymn. This wasn’t explained at all in the program notes for the performance–which I think was a bit of a failure here; the reference being made is to the possible inspiration of Akhnaten’s religion on the development of the Hebrew concepts of monotheism–a theory that had a little more currency in 1984 when the opera was written than it does now.

Act III is when it all falls apart.  Akhnaten and Nefertiti are in a room with their six daughters, singing a wordless song.  Once again, the scene seems to be inspired directly by paintings of Akhnaten and his family, with him seated on one side and Nefertiti on the other, the family exchanging caresses.  Queen Tey is on the edge of the room, and her attention is drawn by the growing chaos outside.  The jugglers are laying on the ground now and a crowd (each member holding a small ball, almost as if holding a rock) gathers as the Scribe reads the words of the Amarna tablets, in which desperate Syrian princes write fruitlessly to Akhnaten for troops as their lands are under attack.  Akhnaten and his family are oblivious, but Tey becomes more and more agitated,.  The High Priest, Aye, and Horemhab reappear and lead an attack, and the jugglers rise up from the ground with the small balls we saw in Act I flying.  What follows is a spectacular battle in slow motion, where we see Queen Tye first try to fend off the attack, which overwhelms the family and visually tears them apart. Nefertiti is forced to the far side of the stage, the daughters–all entwined together by blue textiles in very visible “family ties”, are together forced off stage, the crowd pushes in….

And then, the jugglers begin to let their balls drop, as Aye moves in, his umbrella held, sword-like.  We see Akhnaten die, falling back into the arms of his father (the Scribe), standing behind him.  Holding his dead son, Amonhotep recites lines (from Aye’s tomb–it’s not mentioned in the opera, but Aye eventually serves a brief time as pharoah after the death of Tutankhamun) describing the re-ascendancy of Amon and the old religion (which was, of course, his religion as well).  I never thought a slow motion battle and death scene could be so intense, but it is this last bit–the lines intoned by Amenhotep holding his dead son–that was absolutely heartbreaking.

After this, the subsequent coronation of Tutankhamun is shown, with Nefertiti, now wearing a green gown very different from what we last saw her in, abasing herself before her son.  That son, incidentally, wears a leg brace–another little nugget for the Egyptophiles in the audience.  Meanwhile, up in the “frieze” section of the stage, a number of students in white jackets ride in a “bus”, throwing paper wads at each other (recalling the juggling balls) as a professor reviews slides of the Amarna site.  (This is, of course, the Scribe).  The body of Akhnaten is dressed again in its coronation gown and propped up as a display for modern tourists.  And then everyone leaves, leaving Akhnaten alone.  His spirit awakes and is joined by Nefertiti and Tey, and they once again join their voices together in a last, beautiful song.

My only complaints about the broadcast itself is that it was a little on the quiet side, I suspect in deference to the assumed usual age of the audience for these things (there were three separate ads for “senior living” facilities before the performance).  As such, the two large crowd scenes (the funeral scene in Act I and the attack scene in Act III) lost a bit of their aural punch–the latter, in particular, is spectacularly frenzied and loud on the 1987 recording of the opera that I own.  But the detail that the HD broadcast provided was amazing, and the camerawork was excellent.  The interviews during the intermissions of the conductor, all of the lead singers (Disella Larusdottir’s shout-out in Icelandic was particularly memorable), the actor who played Amenhotep/the Scribe and the costume and set designers were also bonus that someone attending a live performance wouldn’t get to see.  I’m not sure whether the program at the live performance provided the complete set of texts.  I understand that just as in the broadcast, only the words for Akhnaten’s Hymn were projected, even though this is sung in English. (Granted, it’s the only sung portion that’s in English, and Glass clearly wanted it understood).  But I’m a language geek, and would have appreciated seeing the texts and their translations.

I was left desperately hoping that someone in the Canadian Opera Company also saw this production and is now plotting as to how to bring it to Toronto.  I would love to see this live. I have never experienced anything quite so beautiful–a marriage of ritual, dance, visual imagery, history, unexpected depth of feeling, and above all, stunning music played and sung by musicians who managed to find passion and and life and meaning over the passage of nearly four hours, which unfolded slowly but sped by all too quickly.

Seeing this also brought back to life my interest in the Amarna period.  All kinds of advances and discoveries have been made since I studied Egyptian art and history over thirty years ago.  For example, we now know that Tutankamun was not Akhenaten’s immediate successor;  we know this someone named Smenkhare, but who this actually is is a mystery, and there are many theories.  Archaeologists also believe they have Akhenaten’s mummy, which has helped answer more definitively a few questions about his physical condition, and as to whether the unusual depictions of him and his family had any basis in reality.  (For instance, one theory was that he was intersex or genetically XXY (Klinefelter Syndrome); another was that he suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome). Also, he was not killed in a revolt, nor was his reign immediately excised from memory;  that seems to have been a move by Horemheb (yep, he reigned, too) to strengthen his claim to the throne, as he was not of royal birth, but was the commander of the army under Tutankamun and Aye.  I could go on–and I will.  Stay tuned.

Incidentally, I understand that reruns of the live broadcast are scheduled for some time in February–so if you want to see Akhnaten, check out your local theatre.  Most of the GTHA-era Cineplex theatres seem to run the Met productions.

One comment

  1. Fabulous review of the opera. I didn’t even know there was an opera about this. I’m not even a fan of opera. But you have so eloquently described something that I would travel to see. Thank you so much Susan.


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