Akhnaten | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader


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"If Einstein epitomized the man of science and Gandhi the man of politics, then Akhnaten would be the man of religion," minimalist composer Philip Glass once said about this work, the last of his trilogy of operatic historical portraits. He completed Einstein on the Beach in 1976 and Satyagraha in 1980, and though Akhnaten, finished in '84, is the weakest of the three, it's well worth seeing: when Glass wrote it he was still in the midst of his most creative period, years before he started coasting on his reputation. Akhnaten was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 14th century BC, and though his culture had worshiped a pantheon of gods for thousands of years, he introduced a form of monotheism that revolved around the sun and was rooted in gratitude for the divine bounty rather than fear of retribution. Glass compiled the text from letters, tablets, and ancient histories, often preserving the original Late Egyptian, Akkadian, or Hebrew; the lyrics to "Hymn to the Sun" may have been written by the pharaoh himself. The libretto emphasizes the sound and cadence of words over their meaning; Glass repeats short phrases over and over, and of course two of the languages he uses are extinct. (The narration here, however, will be in English.) Musically he employs simple motoric and melodic patterns--often long cascades of ah-aahs--and he's scored the piece for a small orchestra without violins, which makes for a dark, gloomy timbre. But despite its lulling overall feel, the opera provides many moments of startling power and beauty: the drum-heavy funeral march that opens the piece, the trumpet calls in "Hymn to the Sun," the intricate duet between the pharaoh and his queen, Nefertiti. Only stylized representations of Akhnaten remain, but his body appears to have been feminized, with a thin neck, round belly, and breasts; in part for this reason Glass has assigned the role to a countertenor--which means that the royal couple have near identical vocal ranges, emphasizing their close relationship. Countertenor Geoffrey Scott and mezzo-soprano Gail Dubinbaum, who played Akhnaten and Nefertiti in Boston this February--in the opera's first U.S. revival since the mid-80s--reprise their roles here, in a show owned by the Boston Lyric Opera and the Chicago Opera Theater. Beatrice Jona Affron conducts, and Mary Zimmerman directs. Wednesday, July 19, Friday, July 21, Thursday, July 27, and Saturday, July 29, 7:30 PM, and Sundays, July 23 and 30, 3 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport; 312-704-8414. The opera is part of a series of lectures, exhibits, and other events called "Egypt in Chicago"; for details see the readings listings and the Special Events section of the art listings, both in Section Two, or visit www.egyptinchicago.org. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.

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