So, I don’t usually go to see modern operas. Sometimes I try to be more “tolerant” and go to see one, but then I am sorry afterwards that I wasted my time, because I am usually disappointed. So, I almost did not go to see Akhnaten at the Met – the Live in HD performance, that is, at my local IMAX movie theater. But then I did go to see it, yesterday in fact, and I’m sort of glad that I did. Still not my cup of tea, really, but it did get me thinking about a lot of things; thoughts that I wish to share with you, my loyal Readers and fellow opera buffs. And I reckon that is the role of Art – to make you think about things with a different part of your brain. In that sense, Akhnaten is definitely a work of art, a sort of hybrid of an actual opera and a Cirque du Soleil performance.
I’m talking about the Jugglers, of course. The production is beset at all levels with a corps of jugglers dressed in [what? I’m not sure – rock people? leopard costumes?]. This being a Philip Glass “masterpiece”, so of course the music being rather boring and repetitive, they had to give us viewers something to watch, so they had a troop of jugglers. Normally, being a stuffy old-fashioned conservative type, I would disapprove of this type of gimmicry. In fact, I specifically boycotted the Met’s last Così fan tutte, knowing that it was infested with carnies and snake-handlers. (Literally, I’m not kidding.) But in the Akhnaten case, I not only approve of the jugglers, I actually wanted more. In fact, I would recommend to the producers that they expand their circus repertoire, bring in acrobats, trapeze artists, contortionists, the whole nine yards. Why? Because it works, mate!
Secondly, Maestro Glass, albeit a competent technician in the musical arena, is no Verdi or Puccini. Thirdly, he was too lazy to write an actual libretto, so for the most part, his singers just emit either gibberish or, mostly, just the one syllable “Ah! Ah!” To be sure, based on context, the one syllable “Ah!” is capable of imparting a certain degree of information to the listener; but not nearly the level nor complexity of information as if the performer were singing actual words. And how many times did I pray to the Sun God Aten that Nefertiti would suddenly just burst into a cavetina like Verdi’s Lady Macbeth? And tell us what she is actually thinking and planning? Ambizioso Spirto tu sei, Macbetto… Viene, T’affretta… Or Tutti Sorgete, ministri infernali…. Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! (etc)
That being said, for me the highpoint of the show was Akhnaten’s “Prayer Aria” in Act II. This was the one and only time when Superstar countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who has a beautiful and powerful voice, actually got to sing some words, and in English, no less! (With subtitles also in English.) Costanzo is not only amazing in this role, he is probably the Number #1 reason to go and see this show. Eerily, he physically resembles the Pharaoh he portrays, based on portraits we have from that ancient Egyptian era.
When we first encounter Costanzo/Akhnaten, he is practically nude. The program notes warn of full-frontal nudity — I think in the English version of the show Anthony is naked (naughty, naughty, Englishmen!), but for the American mass audience they slapped a loin-cloth on his loins. We see that he physically resembles images of the ancient ruler, what with his sloping bald skull and skinny limbs. And then his handlers proceed to dress him, first in white jodhpurs (was that a thing in ancient Egypt?), then a hoop skirt, and finally a big-ass monstrous robe with precious gems and human heads glued to it.
In an interview during one of the intermissions, Costanzo (who appears to be quite a delightful fellow) joked, that the most painful preparation he ever had to do for a role, was the full body-waxing he had to endure to portray Akhnaten. “Waxing is how countertenors,” are made,” he joked to hostess Joyce DiDonato. Alluding to the original, and actual process that was done to create countertenors in, say, Handel’s time. Well, we’re civilized now, so we don’t do that to people; leaving as a mystery how countertenors are actually created in modern times! Just glad that they are, because they have a unique vocal timbre that should not be lost to the ages.
And speaking of music, the Glass score is rather minimalistic, in terms of instruments. I am not sure, but I could swear I heard somebody playing an electric organ or synthesizer. It was pointed out that the score contains no violins; just a couple of violas; hence, by default the First Viola got to be Concertmeister for once in his life.
Is Monotheism Better?
Pharoah Aknaten was a fascinating figure in his own right: Otherworldly in appearance, apparently the author of religious poetry, sort of insanely interesting. But one of the assumptions underlying the study of him, is the ideological notion that Monotheism is superior, or more advanced, than Polytheism. The Glass opera repeats this meme, intoning that Akhnaten was “ahead of his time”, or some such nonsense. It is a known fact that Akhnaten attempted to impose a monotheistic religion on ancient Egypt, worshipping only the Sun God Aten; but his project only brought misery and dissension to the people; and was the reason for his overthrow. Oh, the Egyptians worshipped the Sun, all right; but they also worshipped the Moon, and the jackal Sutekh, and the Dung Beetle; and lots of other animals and gods, both male and female. And they objected to being told that they had to choose just One.
Personally I don’t believe that monotheism is superior in any way, nor “more advanced” than polytheism. If anything, it’s worse, because it puts all the spiritual eggs in one basket. Plus leads to endless logical paradoxes, of the type: If there is only one God, and He is all Good, then why does Evil exist? Polytheism is more adept at explaining such contradictions, obviously. Because you have a logical explanation: Some gods are good, and some are evil, and they duke it out up there in the beyond, often using humans as their tools…
In any case, the pro-Monotheistic forces may not even be consciously aware of their bias and where it stems from. Obviously, from the fact that their own “modern” religion derives from the ancient Semitic monotheism of the Old Testament. Which led to the three major monotheistic religions that dominate the world today, the so-called Abrahamic religions. Are any of these religions actually descended from Akhnaten’s ideological project? Highly dubious. The God of the Hebrews was not the Sun, nor was he even Sunny in his disposition. He was more like, just an old Jewish guy in the sky.
But Why Was Akhnaten So Ugly?
Some ancient Egyptian scholars (well, I mean scholars who study the ancient Egyptians, not scholars who happen to be — oh, you know what I mean) believe that the real Akhnaten might have suffered from Marfan’s Disease. Which would explain his sloping head, sagging belly and spindly limbs.
As the legitimate Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt, Akhnaten had the power to order the royal artists to paint him as a handsome man, instead of the disfigured mutant that he was. Why? Historians speculate. I can think of two reasons: (1) He was a really honest man, and he wanted to be depicted as he was; or (2) He thought he looked great.
A word about ancient Egyptian art: The ancient Egyptian artists were pretty good, in their own way. They had a great sense of aesthetics, good pattern recognition, and knew how to fill a space for maximum effect. One thing they didn’t know how to do, was perspective; I reckon that had to wait for the later, Italian masters. Hence, the Egyptians painted (or carved) their subjects on a flat plane. Men were taller, women were shorter, children were tiny. Akhnaten and Nefertiti had six daughters together. In ancient Egyptian art, the daughters are depicted, like Mom and Dad, as cone-headed aliens; in the Glass opera they are Goth-girls. (I can’t find a picture; you’ll have to go see it for yourself; you’ll know what I mean — these girls look like they are the daughters of Ozzy Osbourne.)
In addition to Nefertiti and the Goth daughters, Akhnaten’s family also contains Queen Tiye, who models her look on Red-Headed Bess; plus the only other male in the family, son Tutankhamun. But Nefertiti was not Tut’s mom; his mom was a “secondary wife” of Akhnaten. So this Monotheist practiced Polygamy – gasp!
We know from history books, that Tut was raised separately, by the polytheistic priests, and was put on the throne to restore the Old Time Religion. He was not a healthy child, there was something wrong with his leg, and he didn’t live very long; but still, he served his purpose.
The Glass opera should have ended with the horrific death of Akhnaten and the coronation of Tut, thus completing the “circle of life”. Instead, it boringly goes on for an unnecessary “Epilogue” that basically just repeats the first scene of Akhnaten’s dressing and coronation. With everybody still just going “Ah”, as if they had some extra ideas they wished to impart, but didn’t know how to craft actual words from that part of their brain.
My other main criticism of the opera being that it doesn’t use enough of the ancient Egyptian symbology, for example, they could have used more hieroglypics in the set design, and they could have tried to be more authentic in the costumes. One of the generals is even dressed like an Englishman with an umbrella. What’s up with that?
Ordinary people are fascinated, rightfully, by ancient Egypt. There is so much symbolism there, so much aesthetics. Why not use more of that for visual effect? After all, there has to be something to fill in the endless series of Ah’s. In conclusion, for my ideal production of this piece I would suggesting the following:
- More jugglers, and add acrobats, tumbers, trapeze artists and contortionists
- Use more Egyptian hieroglyphs and other symbology in the set design
- Dress everybody in authentic Egyptian costumes, no umbrellas, please
- Cut out the Epilogue, it is unnecessary and adds nothing
And that’s it for my review! Normally I would add a “coda”, where I try to fix the ending, if it was an unhappy ending. In this case, I would leave the ending as is, with Akhnaten dead and Tut ascending the throne. Maybe show how Tut and the priests restore the old polytheistic religion to Make Egypt Great Again (MEGA!), and the people happy and prosperous.