The artistic administrator is the person ultimately responsible for casting; his taste is a major arbiter of what, or whom, you hear onstage. Friend was a key piece of the company’s architecture under music director James Levine, with established likes and dislikes. Heaston has a deep familiarity with the current generation of singers. This move is as great a sign of new wind at the Met as the advent of Yannick Nézet-Séguin to replace Levine in 2018.
It was appropriate to follow this announcement with Friday night’s performance of Philip Glass’s opera “Akhnaten,” which came to the Met this month for the first time. “Akhnaten” had its world premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1984, the year Friend took his position, but what’s old for an administrator is young in opera years. The opera on Friday showed some of the same adolescent élan and authority as its title character, who, as a young man before his investiture, appears onstage stark naked in Phelim McDermott’s physically beautiful production.
Glass’s opera, written in blocks of sound and text, follows this quirky visionary through his radical rule (he instituted monotheism and shook up the conservative Egyptian hierarchy) to his downfall, which was so complete that his successors attempted to eradicate all trace of him. The result, with a shifting rich score darkened by the omission of violins, sounds both more traditional than it did in 1984 and fresher than a lot of more recently written operas trying to fit into the operatic mold. Add the striking production and a strong cast, and “Akhnaten” makes a fine omen for the company’s future.
Though one of the most popular composers on the planet, Glass has been a hard sell to the classical-music establishment, and some still willfully dismiss his work as the repetitious gimmickry of a lightweight. Naysayers ought to have been silenced at the very least by Friday night’s large audience, which represented the younger demographic that opera companies are supposed to be pursuing. They also should have been silenced by Karen Kamensek’s authoritative conducting of the Met orchestra, which sounded more comfortable with Glass’s idiom than it did in 2008, when the Met mounted McDermott’s production of Glass’s “Satyagraha” (the second part of a loose trilogy of operas about significant historical figures, with “Akhnaten” and “Einstein on the Beach”). From the start of the overture, the score bathed the ear in textured sound that conveyed, in its gently shifting luminosity, something of the distance of the archaic.
In an opera that doesn’t follow conventional narrative structures, McDermott found other ways to visualize the music. A central feature of the production is a group of jugglers who toss balls (and sometimes other objects) into the air in ways that correspond remarkably well to the rising and falling patterns of notes. These jugglers, in costumes that evoke the cracked, dry earth of a parched river delta, become part of the elaborate ritual of the court, along with the heavy robes of Kevin Pollard’s costumes, stiff with brocade and glitter, like Russian Orthodox icons. Tom Pye’s sets are sparer: moving scaffolds on which characters are deployed and elements are recycled or repeated — also like the music — so that blocky sculptural chairs or luminous orbs descending from the flies become their own visual leitmotifs.
Character in this work is less a part of a story than a presence: We experience Akhnaten at different phases of his life, rather than having him explained to us. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was a perfect choice, as he is a distinctive artist with a flair for self-presentation and a firm, light voice, which projects power without ever letting the audience forget the underlying vulnerability of his own naked body beneath the robes. Akhnaten takes on many guises: In his love duet with Nefertiti, his wife, Costanzo and J’Nai Bridges, with a beautiful, full mezzo-soprano, wore long red robes that trailed behind them like Christo banners, constraining them as well as showing them off.
Akhnaten and his circle are all high voices, including Queen Tye, his mother, sung by the high soprano Dísella Lárusdóttir, and his six daughters, a tightknit ensemble presenting a cushiony block of sound. This is contrasted with the voices of the priests and other men — Glass’s antecedents in this opera run the gamut from the countertenor Ptolemy in Handel’s “Julius Caesar” to the priests in Verdi’s “Aida.”
Especially imposing was Zachary James in the role of Amenhotep III, Akhnaten’s father, who serves as a kind of ghost-narrator and delivers, speaking, most of the libretto’s intelligible text in an opera largely sung in archaic languages that remained untranslated in the seatback titles. James underlined his role as effective emcee by doubling as a professor explaining Egyptian history to a group of bored students, as Akhnaten was posthumously transformed into a museum display beneath them; at one point, he even joined in the juggling. Richard Bernstein, as Nefertiti’s father, and Will Liverman, as the general Horemhab, were solid anchors around the slightly raspy high priest trapped in another stiff costume, sung by Aaron Blake.
At 3½ hours, “Akhnaten” is a long opera. But like many theatrical composers, Glass is a master of pacing. While the piece had its longueurs like many operas (“Manon,” anybody?), it didn’t feel long. Now 82, Glass is gradually starting to make his way in the mainstream classical-music establishment that’s given him the cold shoulder for so long, with his first performances at the New York Philharmonic and the Kennedy Center within the past few years. But as “Akhnaten” showed, he never really needed that establishment to begin with.
Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, continues through Dec. 7 at the Metropolitan Opera. It will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters around the world on Nov. 23.