Zachary James, Richard Bernstein, Aaron Blake, Will Liverman, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Dísella Lárusdóttir, J’Nai Bridges; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Karen Kamensek; dir. Phelim McDermott (NYC, 2019)
Orange Mountain Music OMM5011 172 mins
‘All this waxing is how I became a countertenor,’ quips Anthony Roth Costanzo to Joyce DiDonato backstage at this Metropolitan Opera 2019 production. This is one of several segments hosted by DiDonato that acted as fillers during the ‘Live in HD’ broadcasts and here provide delicious DVD extras. Alongside his hair, Costanzo gives so much to the titular role in Philip Glass’s 1983 work, the final of the composer’s bio-opera series (following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha). The American countertenor is inextricably linked to the Egyptian pharaoh who initiated monotheistic religion, having played him in this Phelim McDermott production for English National Opera in 2016 and 2019. Costanzo is joined by new colleagues for the Met performance: J’Nai Bridges is a dazzling Nefertiti and Dísella Lárusdóttir epitomises regal restraint.
The score is typically Glassian – even some spoken parts of the libretto are repeated (commandingly by Zachary James). Interestingly, there are no violins in the orchestra – at the time of the work’s 1984 premiere in Stuttgart, the city’s opera house was undergoing renovation and the performance was scheduled to take place in a theatre with a smaller pit. Glass’s creative response was to forefront the violas, which, when heard alongside the countertenor, has real impact.
McDermott’s staging incorporates juggling, choreographed by Sean Giandini and conductor Karen Kamensek. The motion and regularity of the patterns work well with the music. Things aren’t as eccentric as they might seem – by happy coincidence, jugglers have been identified on ancient papyrus illustrations.