Two of the biggest barriers to enjoying opera are cost and location. Most opera is performed in big cities. Tickets can be incredibly expensive, especially when added to the price of travel. Streaming has really helped address these issues, with various platforms offering free access – with advertising; you can subscribe to go ad free – to all kinds of music.
There is a lot of opera on these platforms, from recordings of whole productions to ‘greatest hits’ compilations. This version of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten – which I listened to via Deezer – falls somewhere in between: a studio recording of the full opera rather than a staged performance.
The three-act opera was recorded in Germany in 1987 as part of the CBS Masterclass series. The Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra is conducted by American Dennis Russell Davies. The title role is sung by British countertenor Paul Essen – who also took the part for the work’s world premiere in 1983 – with American mezzo-soprano Milagro Vargas as his wife Nefertiti.
It tells the story of the rise and fall of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. He was noted mostly for trying to convert his people away from their traditional polytheism to the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun god. He was largely unsuccessful and following his death, his monuments and statues were destroyed and his name excluded from the king lists.
The libretto is based on ancient texts and documents recovered by historians and is sung in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian. Uniquely, the narrator’s commentary and one aria, Akhnaten’s ‘Hymn to the sun’, are performed in the language of the audience, although English was chosen for this recording.
Akhnaten contains some of Glass’s most outstanding music and it is very well reproduced here. Despite being more than 30 years old, the recording is clear and crisp. The orchestra and chorus are both excellent, with the music by turns stirring, triumphant, moving and at times quite dark.
Countertenor is the most unusual of male voices and Glass deliberately chose this type to highlight Akhnaten’s ‘otherness’. It also happens to be one of my favourite voice types. Essen’s singing is beautiful and very well captured here.
One drawback of streaming is the lack of documentation. The two-CD set comes with a 100-page book containing full texts and translations of the Eyptian and Hebrew, but Deezer has none of this. However, a simple online search offers up the full libretto and story in English. Reading these does help to understand the opera.
My advice, though, is in the first instance to simply play the music, lie back and enjoy this strange and wonderful opera. Be drawn into this mesmerising and atmospheric recording of a quite remarkable drama.
• Price: free
• Format: streaming
• Run time: 128 minutes
• Tracks: 14
•This recording available from: Deezer (you will need an account)
A clear, crisp and atmospheric recording of a strange and wonderful opera that contains some of Philip Glass’s most outstanding music.