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date: 18 May 2021


  • Tim Page


Opera in three acts by Philip Glass to a libretto by the composer, Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel and Richard Riddell; Stuttgart, Staatsoper, 24 March 1984.

Glass has called Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten a trilogy of ‘portrait’ operas. From a purely dramatic standpoint such a grouping makes sense, although all of the composer’s later operas bear closer musical resemblance to Satyagraha (1980) than they do to the sui generis Einstein on the Beach (1976). In Satyagraha Glass developed his own distinctive mutation of ‘traditional’ opera and the works which have followed are cast in a related musical mould.

Akhnaten opens in 1875 bc in Egypt. On the death of his father, Akhnaten (counter-tenor) is crowned as the new King Amenhotep IV. Immediately he abolishes the Amon traditions of his father, deposing Amon priests, and proposes instead the monotheistic worship of Aten. He builds a temple, Akhetaten, in honour of Aten, and refuses to practise polygamy, preferring to remain true to his wife, Nefertiti. As he becomes increasingly isolated from his people by his preoccupations, the Amon priests incite the people to overthrow him. Akhnaten and his family are left roaming the ruined Akhetaten, mourning the passing of their epoch....

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