Glass: Akhnaten / Davies, Esswood, Et Al

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Akhnaten, Philip Glass's third opera, is a work of relatively compact dimensions but with all the qualities of epic about it. More a history than a story, it tells in Glass's characteristically elliptical fashion of the rise and fall of Akhnaten, sun-worshipper and monotheist, the 'man of religion' who complements in Glass's opera-trilogy the 'man of science' in Einstein on the Beach, and Gandhi, 'man of politics' in Satyagraha. Instead of a libretto there are texts and documents recovered by the Egyptologists, sung or spoken against an endlessly flowing line of orchestral background that symbolizes the passage of time.

Characters as such barely exist, indeed the very notion of 'characterization' is quite inapplicable to the elusive figures who pass through the music like ghosts or shadows. Religious fervour always excepted, everything is drained of human detail and emotion. Even the Act 2 duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti has all the passion of a pair of scarab beetles mating, indeed, it comes as no surprise to find that the words of this domestic exchange are the same ones used just minutes earlier to address the sun-god Aten. Such is the manner of this solemn, ritualistic work. Decades pass; religions are set up and topple; always the orchestra, the ultimate protagonist, throbs underneath with its almost seamless weft of minor-mode arpeggios. Like Satie's Socrate, another piece of 'white music' and a score to which Akhnaten owes a great deal, this is a statuesque work of such earnestness that the term 'opera', with its implication of drama, fails to communicate the nature of the conception.

Akhnaten contains some of Glass's very best music. The Act I funeral scene, almost anthropo-logically observed with its terrifying drumming and the wild trumpet that accompanies the male chorus at the climax of the procession, strikes a chilling note from which the atmosphere never recovers. The final scene, sung wordlessly by the ghosts of Akhnaten, his wife and his mother in the ruins of their city, haunts the mind long after the music has ceased to play. Strangest and most wonderful of all is the ''Hymn to the Sun'', sung by Akhnaten himself at the centre of the opera, and addressed to the audience in its own language—English was chosen for the recording. It is one of the very few moments when we are invited to participate in Akhnaten's private world of belief, and with Glass's mesmeric music it's difficult not to be drawn in completely and utterly.

Success in the performance of Akhnaten relies more upon the orchestra than on voices, and here the Stuttgart State Opera (which commissioned the work) does a superb job. With relatively limited scope for interpretation, the soloists are to be judged more for the nature of their voices than for what they put into the playing of their parts, and in this regard I was slightly disappointed only by Paul Esswood, whose tense, tight-toned singing of the title-role turns Akhnaten into a colder, more remote figure than he need have been. The chorus is marvellous. Documentation, vital for an understanding of the story, is more than adequate, with full texts and translations from the Egyptian and Hebrew.

-- Gramophone, 02/1998

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 13, 2008

  • Catalog Number: SONY42457

  • UPC: 074644245721

  • Label: CBS Masterworks

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Philip Glass

  • Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Stuttgart State Opera Chorus, Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra

  • Performer: Angelika Schwarz, Christina Wächtler, Cornelius Hauptmann, David Warrilow, Geraldine Rose, Helmut Holzapfel, Lynne Wilhelm-Königer, Maria Koupilová-Ticha, Melinda Liebermann, Milagro Vargas, Paul Esswood, Tero Hannula, Victoria Schneider