“A weird fever dream.” That’s how Phelim McDermott describes Philip Glass’ hypnotic opera “Akhnaten.”
He should know. McDermott is the wildly imaginative English stage director who has transformed old and new operas, stage plays and musicals into jaw-dropping visions. That includes “The Addams Family,” “Cosi fan tutte” and the new Metropolitan Opera production of a very Glassian take on power in ancient Egypt.
The real Akhnaten lived 3,000 years ago and was a disruptive iconoclast. He shattered norms and abolished the worship of multiple gods in favor of one – the Sun.
That’s only one reason to see “Akhnaten” at 10:55 a.m. Saturday at Fort Lewis College. It runs 3½ hours. Here are nine more reasons.
“Akhnaten” is part of the American composer’s “portrait trilogy.” In the 1970s and ’80s, Glass created three operas about key historical figures from religion, science and politics: Akhnaten, Einstein and Gandhi. In 2011, when The MET Live in HD first came to Durango, we were lucky enough to see “Satyagraha,” the Gandhi opera, and we’ve been arguing about it ever since.The composer is unstoppable. At 82, Glass continues to churn out concert works and movie and television scores. He’s written more than 30 operas. So, see “Akhnaten” now before you read an obituary.Minimalist music. Although Glass never embraced the term, his repetitive structures are a meditation in sound. Short melodic fragments weave into elaborate combinations. He was inspired early by the sitarist Ravi Shankar and classical Indian music.The story follows history, dramatizing the rise and fall of a radical pharaoh, from Akhnaten’s coronation to his downfall and death. The opera unfolds in a series of rituals, from the funeral of Amenhotep III and the imminent coronation of his son. But Amenhotep IV abandoned the dynastic name and chose Akhnaten to honor the new religion, the spirit of Aten.The singers range from counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who is the title character, to mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, “the Beyoncé of opera,” as Queen Nefertiti. Their sinuous love duet in Act II is so tightly intertwined, their lines often cross. Because they sing in the same register and frequently merge in spectacular unisons, the duet is a remarkable musical symbol of marital accord. Modernistic costumes stretch from elaborate, ceremonial garments to simple abstract body stockings – or nothing at all. Be prepared for a stripped-down ruler to slowly acquire the robes of rank, status and privilege. Scenic design centers on the sun or stretches out in ceremonies or piles up in layers like Egyptian tomb paintings. Processions filled with jugglers and acrobats accentuate the stylized nature of McDermott’s fever dream.At the end, be prepared for a very Glassian gesture that interrupts the Egyptian fantasy and inserts a jarring, time-shifting world view. We’ll be arguing about it for years.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.