Somewhere in this world of excess is a desert spa where the ultrapampered take baths in molten gold while lithe hairless figures with gilded skin glide around to a soundtrack of aureate music. Those who can’t afford the full-immersion golden package, but who can spring for a several-hundred-dollar-per-ticket night out, will have to settle for the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Akhnaten, Philip Glass’s lacquered evocation of court life in Ancient Egypt, as staged by Phelim McDermott. With its army of jugglers, its sexy robes, architectural headgear, and bejeweled everything, this Akhnaten gratifies the desire for decadent blitheness and high-minded spectacle. We are not asked to judge the characters’ motives, analyze their behavior, or even decipher what is actually going on. They move across the stage as if through a pool of caramel, and while the music eddies and crests, we need only sit and soak.
What’s not to enjoy? The 1983 score is vintage Glass, flowing into every crevice, smoothing the day’s ragged edges and lifting spirits on a burbling tide. The only way to dislike the experience is to think about it too hard — although that might be a problem in the final work from a trilogy about intellectual revolutionaries. After portraying two well-documented 20th-century giants, Albert Einstein (in Einstein on the Beach) and Mahatma Gandhi (in Satyagraha), Glass chose a protagonist about whom comparatively little is known: the 14th-century B.C.E. pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who rebaptized himself to proclaim allegiance solely to the supreme god Aten.
Glass was attracted to the pharaoh’s radicalism — the way he demoted the old gods, erected a new capital, and transformed his nation’s art. Akhenaten (as the non-Glass-y spelling has it) so threatened the old order that, in the retrenchment after his death, the memory of his reign was effectively expunged. That erasure gave the composer the leeway to create an entire social fabric from surviving scraps and a human being from a few mysterious statues, which show him with wide hips, soft belly, and a suggestion of breasts. Scholars have extrapolated theories about androgyny and genetic mutations. Glass makes him a countertenor, a sound that in the early 1980s many listeners still perceived as a woman’s voice in a man’s body.
Associations change: Several waves of phenomenal countertenors (David Daniels, Bejun Mehta, Andreas Scholl, and Iestyn Davies, to name a few) have made the idea of the male mezzo-soprano seem less strange, and more affirmatively masculine. We don’t read Handel’s swaggering, bellicose Julius Caesar, now a regular presence on the world’s stages, as effeminate just because he can hammer out superhigh notes with ease.
So a generation later, McDermott ups the ante, making sure Akhnaten’s body evolves before our eyes. We first meet the ruler in the nude (him, not us), and though the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has explained the nakedness in terms of “childlike vulnerability,” his hairless, glossy, and glittering look evokes a bronze figurine. He’s also unambiguously male, a fact that the singer has been unnecessarily emphasizing in interviews about his workout regimen and the effects of cold air on tender skin: “I just hope the men out there will know it’s not necessarily representative,” he explained to Bloomberg News. But what’s a naked body for, if not to bedeck in fabulous gowns, robes, hoops, and mantles? Designer Kevin Pollard supplies a naked-woman undergarment that shines through the gaudy yards of gauze, which in a more plot-oriented opera might suggest that the king may have transitioned along the way.
If there’s a political or social agenda at work here, it’s buried in décor. What’s left of a dramatic work when you scrub away almost all plot, character, relationships, conflict, and language? The result is a beguiling meditation on surface. The opera’s emotional center, if you can call it that, is the second-act scene between Akhnaten and his queen Nefertiti (sung by J’nai Bridges, whose Met debut leaves the audience craving much, much more). Their ravishingly matched voices intertwine in a golden braid, glinting against the orchestra’s velvet, embroidered by syncopated trumpets. Conductor Karen Kamensek keeps the sound warm and the layered pulsations regular but not rigid. We don’t know who the characters onstage are, we haven’t seen their love grow, and they address each other in a series of intensifying aahs, and so their love is distilled to pure sensuality and atmosphere.
Glass began as a confrontational composer: His music was loud, insistent, and defiantly not going anywhere. But he soon evolved into a composer of lush, bright weaves of orchestration and slow-moving swells. In Akhnaten, he cut out violins, giving the orchestra a low, coppery timbre that puts some extra sheen on the voices. Throughout the trilogy, he indulges in a lot of historical selectivity for the sake of his polished style. He displays no interest in the link between Einstein’s theories and the atom bomb, for instance, or in the carnage that followed Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign for Indian independence, and if the real Akhenaten used violence to consolidate power, pointing that out might have conflicted with the opera’s blissful vibe.
McDermott, too, has banished sharp edges, filling the stage with red suns, giant eggs, translucent beach balls, and low-hanging moons — objects as glossy and spherical as Costanzo’s gleaming skull, as seamless as his vocal technique. Slow pulses contain faster ones, gyrating like wheels within wheels, and the omnipresent jugglers who swarm the stage echo the most rapid movement. McDermott uses them to solve a problem that bedevils opera directors everywhere: how to maintain visual interest when the action moves at the pace of sludge. It’s a trick with rapidly diminishing returns.
When Glass was a young man, Susan Sontag wrote “Notes on Camp,” which defined an aesthetic of overload and exaggeration that seemed the polar opposite of early minimalism’s austerity. “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp,” she wrote. “Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.” I don’t know if that distinction still holds, but it would be hard to imagine a production more self-conscious and deliberate than this.
Akhnaten is at the Metropolitan Opera through December 7.