Los Angeles Review by Willard Manus

Los Angeles Opera also mounted another equally offbeat and challenging opera recently, Philip Glass’s AKHNATEN, a three-hour work about ancient Egypt’s strangest Pharaoh. Sung by a counter-tenor (the dynamic Anthony Roth Costanzo), Akhnaten is depicted as an other-worldly cross between a man and a woman, a self-styled God (the son of the sun) whose mission was to destroy all the other “false” Gods of his time and build a new, radical, monotheistic society.

Anthony Ross Costanzo (Photo: Craig T. Matthew/LA Opera)
First produced in Stuttgart in 1984, followed soon after by productions in Houston and New York, AKHNATEN was mounted locally in 2011 (by Long Beach Opera). Now LA Opera, in a co-production with English National Opera, has caught up with this avant-garde work, which features highly stylized, often snail-like stage movement by the cast, spectacular lighting effects, elaborate costumes (some elegant, some downright wacky), a mighty chorus, much tumbling and juggling (by the Gandini Juggling Co.), and a vocal text drawn from such esoteric sources as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, biblical Hebrew and Babylonian texts, and Akhnaten’s own jottings.

Glass’s score took all of these diverse elements and wove them together in a skillful way, providing a throbbing, dark, hypnotic undercurrent to the slowly unfolding story. Akhnaten’s regime lasted a mere seventeen years: people, especially the reactionary priests, couldn’t accept his revolutionary theological and artistic ideas. They turned on him and not only destroyed the city he built but murdered him, sparing, though, his mother, Queen Tye (Stacey Tappan), his wife, Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) and his six daughters.

The opera ends in the present, with a group of archaeology students listening to a lecture on Ahktanen, while the ghosts of the Sun God and his family call movingly to them from the other world.

The cast’s fine singing and Glass’s spacious, contemplative music more than made up for the story’s many odd, bewildering, anachronistic moments.

Call 213-972-8001 or visit laopera.org for tickets and information.