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Philip Glass's 'Akhnaten' brings ancient egyptian piety to life / NATIONAL REVIEW

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The final opera in Philip Glass's "portrait" trilogy, Akhnaten, which premiered in 1984, had its Metropolitan debut this season. (The first two in the trilogy, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, are about the lives of Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, respectively.)

The score is minimalist with maximal effect, repetitive and slowly building on themes. The libretto is primarily in English, but also makes good use of Hebrew, ancient Egyptian, and Akkadian. The performance is intrinsically ritualistic. "If Einstein epitomized the man of Science and Gandhi the man of Politics, then Akhnaten would be the man of Religion," Glass once said of the work. Akhnaten's most affecting passion is not physical but spiritual. While the opera, as directed by Phelim McDermott, is bright and opulent, it makes clear that its protagonist is driven not by hedonism but by principle. Akhnaten is remarkable in its depiction of the Egyptian ruler's piety, its immemorial-sounding rhythms, and its visual composition of illumination and acrobatics.

The opera has several different visual layers: relatively simple sets, careful lighting, and elaborate costumes and choreography. There is constant motion on stage, be it acrobats juggling, set pieces slowly moving, or lights varying in luster. The effect is entrancing. Although it's hardly an action-packed show, the glowing sun-like lights and acrobatics make it a visually arresting one.

At his investiture as pharaoh in Act One, the first time that he appears on stage, Akhnaten, played by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, arrives nude like a child being born. He does not dress but is dressed, a sign of royalty, and one which also reminds the audience that Akhnaten is fulfilling a duty by becoming pharaoh. He does not ascend because of personal desire for the throne but because of his obligation to his people and his gods that he has carried since birth.

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