Commissioned by the Stuttgart Opera, Akhnaten is the last installment in Philip Glass's trilogy of "portrait operas," which also includes Einstein on the Beach, and Satyagraha. Whereas Einstein is a meditation on one of science's seminal minds and Satyagraha a memorial to the political philosophies of Ghandi, Akhnaten takes as its subject the Egyptian pharaoh (also known as Akhenaton or Amenhotep IV) credited with establishing the world's first monotheistic religion. Both he and his religion were rather short-lived--overthrown by more traditional elements that soon returned Egypt to its former practices--but the fundamental shift in religious and artistic philosophies represent a remarkable period in that culture's history.
This work betrays Glass' ever-changing approach to operatic form, which ranges from the surreal tableaux of Einstein to Satyagraha's more conventional dramatics, and here settles into somewhat of a middle ground. It is the only work of the three to follow a chronological order of events that can truly be considered a plot. The work was inspired by the writings of Immanuel Velikovsky, whose Oedipus and Akhnaten draws parallels between the mythical Greek king and his historical Egyptian counterpart.
Akhnaten is a series of scenes from the pharaoh's life and an epilogue (set in the present day), all of which are bound together by narration delivered in the vernacular of the performance venue. The libretto itself is excerpted by the composer, Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, and Richard Riddell from a variety of sources, including ancient Egyptian texts and the Hebrew Bible, all of which are included in their original languages.
Glass' score is notable for its clarity of texture (giving the work an almost neo-classical feel), and for its strongly orchestral emphasis, at times placing the singers and ensemble on equal ground expressively. Further, the orchestra contains no violins, which lends a striking warmth and depth to the entire piece. For these reasons, Akhnaten sounds distinctly different from its predecessors; however, the musical substance of the work is very much in line with the other members of the trilogy, and with Glass' style as a whole. In fact, Glass reused some motivic material from Einstein--most noticeably the "knee play" interludes--in constructing several sections of Akhnaten, the epilogue in particular. Perhaps the most noteworthy passage in the score is Akhnaten's "Hymn to the Aten" (the sun god whose worship was central to Akhnaten's new religious order), which is excerpted from the pharaoh's own writings. The only sung portion of the score that is always translated to the vernacular, it emphasizes the potential universality of Akhnaten's beliefs, especially through an interesting juxtaposition with Psalm 104 from the Hebrew bible. It is also some of the most chromatic music contained in any of Glass' mature scores.