Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.
At last, a minimalist opera, and by an living American no doubt! The Minimalist style consists of musical particles that are repeated over and over again. Basically if Wagnerian leitmotifs were constantly repeated to the expense of any other music for a specific period of time with only the most minimal of changes (usually switching around orchestration and combining various orchestra elements). Do not be put off, this is literally the most accessible modern opera one could think of. Some of the music has a distinctively romantic era quality to it, if still within the minimalist genre. I have also heard this opera before, specifically the 1987 studio recording.
SETTING: Egypt, specifically Thebes, 1370-1358 B.C.E. Akhnaten destroys the temple of Amun, only to totally break contact with reality after introducing Monotheism to Egypt, lose his throne, and die.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (47 minutes)
0: The prelude ***, almost immediately recognizable from its usage in car commercials in the United States consists of only two continuous themes in A-minor (the first a ground bass taken up by the mid-upper strings (there are no violins, the violas are the upper strings here: the Stuttgart opera was renovating at the time and the pit was small so the 20 violins were disappeared by Glass) for four and a half minutes, the second including the usage of brass and woodwinds). A continuous whirl until it finally starts to low down a little and eventually the narrator pops in for three verses of an Egyptian funerary text. Stunning.
Scene 1: The funeral of Amenhotep III
11: The funeral march *** is a male chorus consisting entirely of an Egyptian funeral hymn and they are joined by the High Priest Aye, the father of the wife of Akhnaten, the soon to be crowned Queen Nefertiti. The key moves from A-major to F# minor at intervals, with a return of the original prelude music.
Scene 2: The Coronation of Akhnaten.
20: There is a long and somewhat romantic intermezzo that lasts for quite a long time **. The main key is A-minor. Eventually the woodwinds give us something funky and a quiet background chorus (children) oo-and-aw.
26, 32: A trio *** with chorus from the High Priest of Amon, Aye, and Horemhab as they chant a ritual text. The Narrator reads a list of titles as Akhnaten is crowned. The chorus repeats the text from the beginning of the scene **. More A-minor.
Scene 3: The Window of Appearances.
39: The most surreal entrance of a title character in opera *** as we discover that Akhnaten is a counter-tenor. Queen Dowager Tye sings in her high soprano as Nefertiti is almost inaudible with her low contralto, singing in harmony below that of her husband, who sings a hymn to the Creator. Fade out.
ACT 2: (44 minutes)
Scene 1: The Temple of Amun.
2, 5: Amen! Amen! After a prelude in (what else?) A-minor, the High Priest sings a hymn to Amun ** which is really more of a one-word tenor aria con coro. The music grows in intensity, but why? Suddenly Akhnaten, Queen Tye, and Nefertiti invade the temple with soldiers and the ceiling of the temple is opened to reveal the rays of the sun and Aten. There are no actual words spoken, it is all gibberish, but it is effective ** and could have made for a romantic era climactic scene moving chromatically from A-flat major to E-minor.
Scene 2: A Garden.
14: The breath the sweet breath that comes from thy mouth The love scene *** which becomes more of a trio with the trumpet taking the highest voice above the countertenor and contralto.
Scene 3: The City of Amarna.
26: The dance * celebrating the completion of the city.
31: Perhaps the climax of the work: the Hymn to Aten ***, a full scale aria performed in the language of the audience. The chorus eventually sings the 104th Psalm off-stage in Hebrew, which has strong similarities to this Hymn to the Aten. Surreal, stunning.
ACT 3: (38 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the palace.
6: Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and their six daughters sing wordlessly (demonstrating their lack of knowledge of the outside world). The Narrator reads letters from Syrian envoys begging for troops *, but Akhnaten ignores them and his kingdom is seized by enemies. A bizarre scene with the key switching from E-minor to F-minor.
Scene 2: The attack and fall of the city.
13: F-minor, reading the letters from the Syrians in Akkadian, Horemheb, Aye, and the High Priest incite the people to attack the palace ** to a return of the music from the prelude.
Scene 3: The ruins.
22: The Narrator returns with an inscription from the tomb of Aye about the restoration of the temple of Amun by Tutankhamun. The prelude music ** returns and much of the remainder of the opera consists just of a return of previous music with occasional references in the woodwinds and bass. The Narrator arrives as a tour guide and reads from a guide book.
Scene 4: The epilogue.
30: The ghosts of Akhnaten, Queen Tye, and Nefertiti return and follow the funerary procession of Amenhotep into the distance **. A bass line from Einstein on the Beach brings the opera to a close.
Akhnaten is perhaps the most accessible modernist opera for listeners accustomed to more Romantic-era fare. Nothing atonal, the orchestra (apart from the absence of violins and the inclusion of a celesta, bells, and synthesizer) is basically that of a standard early-19th century opera. The final act does eventually get a bit dull when listening to a recording because everything happens mostly without the usage of the voice, or at least actual words. The first act is the best, and includes more singing words than any of the other acts, which gradually rely more and more on the Narrator to provide structure as the singers are left with oo-aws to sing. Symbolically it is very effective theatre, but this can be confusing if just listening to the opera and not seeing it, as a lot happens without the use of words and there are multiple silent characters. An alpha, from one Phil to another.