Going for the jugglers: An unusual operatic approach to ‘Akhnaten’

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ahknaten) and J’Nai Bridges (Nefertiti) in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Ahknaten” by Philip Glass. (Photo by Karen Almond)

What: “Akhnaten”
Where: Various local cinemas
When: Dec. 4 (encore presentation)
Tickets: See review text

Classical Music Critic

The Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten ruled ancient Egypt for 17 years, beginning in approximately 1353 BCE. He had multiple consorts, including a sister-wife as well as the famous Great Royal Wife Nefertiti. He is the father of Tutankhamen. And he instituted a major religious change during his reign, attempting to impose a form of monotheism on his people.

All of this offers a big canvas for opera. The American composer Philip Glass (b. 1937) composed his opera “Akhnaten” in 1983 and the following year it premiered in Stuttgart. A revival of an English National Opera production (which premiered in March of 2016) and LA Opera (which premiered in November 2016) is now at the Metropolitan Opera. It was broadcast live as part of “The Met: Live in HD” on Nov. 23 and will be reprised tonight in that same series.

With this sweeping historical background, full of interesting historical nooks and crannies, it is surprising what stage director Phelim McDermott has done. Having examined the story and the music, he decided to stuff his staging with a certain kind of performer. Not great actors or mimes. Not singers. Not dancers.

“Akhnaten” has been transformed into a juggling act.

Phelim McDermott has given this opera the full Las Vegas treatment: vapid specialty acts, fashion shows, and the treatment of religion as just another form of entertainment.

His accomplices in this strange act of vandalism are the members a small troupe of jugglers outfitted in costumes that look like a bizarre marriage of the Spiderman uniform and the Blue Man Group’s supple garb. The Live Met broadcasts are famous for their little chats during intermissions, and multiple folk tell host Joyce DiDonato how the juggling brings the music to life. Such a pity that McDermott found so little else in the story to illuminate.

You can see how someone might get caught up in such a conceit. Pages and pages of 16th notes can begin to look like juggling instructions, I suppose, but to put such nonsense center stage for extended stretches at a time is nothing short of desperate, and this would be the case even if the juggling weren’t so badly done. Chorus members are asked to toss balls up in the air a few inches and then catch them. For those chorus members whose talents do not extend that far, simply holding the ball in one hand and moving it up and down suffices.

Even the professional jugglers drop the balls and the clubs regularly, adding to the overall dreariness of the visuals.

Glass composed a beautifully meditative work which McDermott has transformed into an opening act for Penn and Teller. (My suspicion is that Penn Jillette could offer more interesting observations on this Pharaoh during a 10-minute magic trick than McDermott does in the entire opera.)

Even weighed down by a terrible approach, “Akhnaten” is hard to destroy completely. Countertenor Antony Roth Costanzo has the vocal goods to deliver a powerful performance. His sound is plaintive and urgent, and he and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti sing beautifully together, notably during those sections where the Pharaoh’s voice line is higher than his queen’s. These two marvelous singers shared a stage here in Chicago for the world premiere of the Jimmy Lopez opera “Bel Canto,” at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where each of them had one of the big moments of that opera.

Because Glass’s music unfolds slowly and re-arranges itself in repeated un-folding of the music, slow, ritualistic movements can offer power. When Akhnaten and Nefertiti each appear in bright red gowns with enormous trains, McDermott at last has a visual of great power, even if it comes off as an extended “Vogue” photo session.

The rest of the characters are also well cast. Disella Larusdottir is gripping as Queen Tye while Aaron Blake is powerful as the High Priest of Amon. Will Liverman and Richard Bernstein are excellent as Horemhab and Aye, respectively. Zachary James has the charisma needed for the narrator.

Karen Kamensek is an able conductor, even if the sound from the pit is at times rather pedestrian.

How do the political and religious worlds combine and interact? Must progress be imposed or is acceptance of change required first? How are leaders held accountable by the people? Are royals really special people? This opera offers numerous paths for interpretation which have been left totally unexplored in this Cirque-du-Soleil-style approach. (At least that Canadian circus group has “sun” in its name, the one god Akhnaten attempted to make solely supreme.)

This production had already become famous before the HD live transmission, because it marks the first time the Met has had full frontal nudity from a male performer. Costanzo was reported to appear on stage completely naked. I don’t know if this helps advance the story, but on the Saturday afternoon I saw it, Costanzo wasn’t naked, but instead sported diaper-like swaddling.

It’s too bad that this realization of “Akhnaten” is so ill conceived and so terribly unconcerned with the history and background to the story. But it is brilliant that for $25 you can slip into a comfy movie house seat and see America’s greatest opera company in action. Coming up in the Live in HD series: “Porgy and Bess” (Feb. 1), “The Flying Dutchman” (Mar. 14), and “Tosca” (Apr. 11). For the full schedule, visit MetOpera.org.

The theaters in Chicago which broadcast the Live in HD operas are the Show Place ICON (150 W. Roosevelt Rd.); River East 21 (322 E. Illinois St.); and Webster Place 11 (1471 W Webster Ave.).