Philip Glass: Akhnaten (1984)

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.



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.

40 responses to “Philip Glass: Akhnaten (1984)”

  1. Thanks for putting this up early! One of your best reviews. I wondered what you’d make of it, knowing your doubts about 20th century opera!

    Probably the only opera in Ancient Egyptian (take that, Aida!), Akkadian, and Hebrew.

    Satyagraha is wonderful, too – all in Sanskrit.

    I can’t get on with EInstein on the Beach, though – one one one two two one one two three three one two one two three one one two one two two three one two three one two one, etc.

    Only two stars for Attack and Fall? This is definitely one of the highlights for me – an overwhelming torrent of SOUND!


    1. Interest started to wane for me in the third act. I love the first act and I like the second, but the musical elements start to feel too repetitive in the third. I really feel like one has to be watching it to fully understand it at that point.

      You really think this is one of my best reviews? It is actually one of my shortest, only 1000 words. I felt I was being too minimalist (pun intended).


    2. Hi, what do you think of Linda di Chamounix?


      1. What recording? “Notice that Antonio is wearing a hat…” And where does JDF come in?

        The Perfect, the village priest –> Prefect


      2. Sorry about that! Boy did I mess up big, I even forgot the link! Now it should make more sense: link, photos, correction of the title Prefect.

        I reviewed the 2011 performance at Liceu with Damrau and Florez.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy reviewing this opera (I wrote everything except the corrects about two weeks ago and just allowed it to sit for a while). I don’t like it at all, but I tried to be somewhat more objective than usual with it and gave a few inflated star ratings because my first drafting was too harsh to people who really like this opera. I put some effort into it though, for laughs, including a fitted homage to the film Red Sonja as a setting prologue where I think I did a good job of incorporating plot elements effectively.


      4. But what do you think of Linda di Chamounix?


      5. I haven’t heard it for a decade.


      6. Seriously, you liked this review? If Akhnaten was one of my best, Linda di Chamounix is one of my worst reviews.


      7. You’re rather hard on yourself! You do a good job of describing the numbers and your reaction to them.

        Your posts are, as you say, subjective. What about making them more objective? You’re a historian who knows music, and speaks Italian; use those skills (as you did with Akhnaten, talking about key changes).

        Questions you might like to think about: How was the work received? What difference did composing for Vienna make? What’s its place in Donizetti’s oeuvre? How does it compare to other Italian operas (most obviously Gazza ladra, Sonnambula, and Luisa Miller, even Paisiello’s Nina)? What do musicologists make of it (eg Ashbrook, Osborne)? Can a pastoral melodrama still work for a 21st century audience?


      8. This is a great idea. A new comments section is being added.


      9. More objective, yes. Technically my blog will always been subjective because the star-ratings reflect my personal opinion, but yes, I can include more objective material than I already do.

        As for the 21st century audience, I think pastoral melodramas have a following, probably because of escapism(?). I may not agree with them, but if they continue to sell tickets, I can’t stop them.


      10. I was going to do Die Tode Stadt. Not sure now….


      11. Die tote Stadt is psychologically interesting; has a great aria; and an ironic commentary on Robert le Diable. Viz:


      12. This is will be next then. I want sometime a bit more psychological.


      13. I have added about 600 words to the comments section of Linda comparing it with Lucia, Luisa, and Sonnambula. I think this does improve things a lot and reenforces my opinion, thanks for the suggestion!


      14. So are you working on Giulio Cesare then?


      15. No.


      16. Have you heard that opera by Joncieres, Dimitri?


      17. What is your opinion? I already wrote a post of in. Since you are the French opera specialist, your opinion matters more than mine (actually your opinion matters more than mine regardless of which opera I am reviewing).


      18. If I were not a little mad and generally silly
        I should give you my advice upon the subject, willy nilly;
        I should show you in a moment how to grapple with the question,
        And you’d really be astonished at the force of my suggestion.
        On the subject I shall write you a most valuable letter,
        Full of excellent suggestions when I feel a little better,
        But at present I’m afraid I am as mad as any hatter,
        So I’ll keep ’em to myself, for my opinion doesn’t matter


      19. Neither does mine, what is your point?

        Sorry to hear you are ill.


      20. Did you see the Mets Fanciulla? It is still winter here so it is fun to see the only opera with a slumber party!


      21. No; the Armidale cinema (there’s only one) isn’t showing the Met operas any more. But good news! They’re screening Simon Boccanegra, in a production by Calixto Bieito, the enfant terrible of Regietheater.


      22. Why are such things allowed to happen? They make me long for the days when the Bolshoi only produced the Rimsky version of Khovanshchina, and with period sets!

        Bieito isn’t that one who set Parsifal in outer space is he? Remind me again why the fall of Communism was a good thing?

        Why is Regietheater allowed to exist? Seriously, who throws money at this poubelle?

        Must be Germans….


      23. I added a few paragraphs towards the end of Linda di Chamounix if you would like to read.

        Liked by 1 person

      24. I am deleting Linda di Chamounix. It has nothing to do with your comments, I am just totally dissatisfied with my work on it. I was bored out of my mind by it and I even artificially inflated half the star-ratings (originally it was over half one-star-ratings and I couldn’t wait for it to be over). I will keep my original text of the review proper and work on a different recording. I don’t know if it will ever show up again because I found this so painful to do.


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