The opera is set in the city of Thebes, Egypt. It is a series of episodes from the life of Akhnaten, Pharaoh of Egypt from 1351 to 1334 B.C.
The opera opens with an orchestral prelude and a reflection on the current conditions in Egypt. We are then introduced to the Scribe, a narrator who will guide us throughout the opera. The Scribe’s opening speech predicts the religious and social changes to come during the rule of Akhnaten.
Pharaoh Amenhotep III has died, and the people of Thebes bid farewell to him and accompany the funeral procession along the Nile.
Akhnaten, the son of the late Pharaoh, receives the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt from the High Priest Amon, General Horemhab, and Aye, a government advisor.
The Window of Appearances
The new regime is formally announced as Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti, and his mother, Queen Tye, sing a hymn of acceptance and resolve from the Temple windows. This is the first time we hear the voice of Akhnaten, a role sung by a countertenor, musically illustrating the unusual aspects of the coming era—the Amarna period of Egyptian history.
It is eight years into the reign of Akhnaten, and, in the Temple, the priests are worshipping the traditional Gods of Egypt. Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye arrive and engage in a wordless debate with the priests, declaring a new monotheistic order of religion. The Pharaoh’s former name, Amenhotep IV, will be abandoned in favor of Akhnaten, meaning son of Aten, the Sun God. The Temple is destroyed and the sun enters to light the way for the new, revolutionary Aten order.
Akhnaten and Nefertiti
The second half of the opera begins with the Scribe reading a poem from an ancient tomb inscription. Repeating this poem in song, the words become an illustration of the love between Akhnaten and Nefertiti. In the background, we see Queen Tye, who realizes her time of power has passed, as she thinks of her husband Pharaoh Amenhotep III’s funeral procession journeying to the land of Ra.
Using a text from the Boundary markers of the Amarna period, the Scribe illustrates the changes in Egypt’s power and Akhnaten’s plan to build a new utopia, Akhetaten. Meaning the horizon of Aten, the city is to be a place of openness and light.
As Akhnaten consults with his architects, we see the city of Akhetaten being built by the joyful citizens.
At a defining moment of the opera, Akhnaten sings a “Hymn to the Aten.” Determined by the composer that this music is to be sung in the language of the opera’s audience, Akhnaten praises the Sun God and speaks of himself as one with him. Following the Hymn, the chorus sings Psalm 104 from the Old Testament in Hebrew, a direct musical influence from the time of Moses in Egypt.
It is year 17 of Akhnaten’s rule, and he is with wife Nefertiti and their six daughters inside their palace. Increasingly isolated from the outside world, the family revels in their own utopian ideals.
Attack and Fall
Outside the palace, the citizens have grown restless over the neglect of the country’s needs. As they gather, the Scribe incites their anger by reading letters chronicling the years of myopic rule. As their distress increases, the mob surrounds and enters the palace, carrying the Pharaoh and his family away. The scene closes with the Scribe announcing the end of Akhnaten’s rule.
The Scribe describes the return of the Amon order, with the ascendancy of Tutankhamen, a son of Akhnaten by a lesser wife. King Tut ordered the destruction of his father’s city and monuments and oversaw the rebuilding of the temples that Akhnaten had destroyed. The scene then transitions to present day, where we see the ruins of the city Akhetaten, the site of the few archaeological remnants of Akhnaten’s rule. The Scribe, transformed into a twentieth-century tour guide, tells the modern visitors the story of what once was.
In a timeless juxtaposition, we see the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Tye, and the citizens of modern Egypt amidst the ruins.