Opera in three acts.
Libretto (Egyptian, Arcadian, Hebrew, and language of the audience) by the composer in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel and Richard Riddell. Vocal text drawn from original sources by Shalom Goldman.
4 Sopranos, 4 Mezzo Sopranos, Countertenor, Tenor, Baritone, Bass
Akhnaten - countertenor
Nefertiti, wife of Akhnaten - alto or mezzo-soprano
Queen Tye, mother of Akhnaten - high soprano
High Priest of Amon - tenor
Horemhab, general and future Pharaoh - baritone
Aye, father of Nefertiti and advisor to the Pharaoh - bass
Six Daughters of Akhnaten - 3 sopranos, 3 mezzo-sopranos
The scribe - narrator
Priests - small chorus
The people of Egypt - large opera chorus
The third in Glass' trilogy of operas about men who changed the world in which they lived through the power of their ideas, Akhnaten's subject is religion. The Pharaoh Akhnaten was the first monotheist in recorded history, and his substitution of a one-god religion for the multi-god worship in use when he came to power was responsible for his violent overthrow. The opera describes the rise, reign, and fall of Akhnaten in a series of tableaux.
Act I Thebes, 1370 BC
Prelude - The High Priest of Amon prepares for the funeral of Amenhotep III. He is followed by the dead Pharaoh's son, who will be Amenhotep IV, and other members of the royal family: the Pharaoh's widow, Tye (the regent until her son comes of age); Aye, her brother, who was Amenhotep III's chief advisor; Horemhab, leader of the army; and Nefertiti, Aye's daughter and the young bride of the new Pharaoh.
The Funeral of Amenhotep III - Eight Amon priests enter with the dead Amenhotep III. They celebrate the rites of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Amenhotep III begins a rite of passage through the temple of Amon. He is met by eight of the gods, who accompany him on his journey to the horizon.
The Coronation - Amenhotep IV is prepared for his coronation in a purification ceremony. He is crowned with the double crown of Egypt and greeted as the incarnation of Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris.
The Window of Appearances - The new Pharaoh draws the symbol of the Aten, the sun with its rays, on each of which is an ankh, the symbol of life. He will soon change his name Amenhotep ("Amon is pleased") to Akhnaten ("spirit of Aten"). The Amon High Priest cannot accept the affront to the old god Amon and leaves, while Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Tye, with whom perhaps the real power now lies, dance blasphemously through the Amon temple.
The Temple - The Amon priests, surrounded by totems representing the many gods of whom Amon was the most important, are overthrown by Akhnaten, Queen Tye and their followers; their gods and temple are destroyed.
Akhnaten and Nefertiti - Queen Tye teaches Akhnaten a poem to the Aten which he then teaches to Nefertiti. Tye gives over to Akhnaten the charge of Bekhetaten, believed by some commentators to have been their daughter. Aye and Horemhab announce that plans are ready for the building of Akhnaten's new capital, Akhnaten the "city of the Horizons of Aten". This is a further step to break the power of the old religion.
Hymn - The city is built. Akhnaten sings a hymn to the Aten and the chorus sings Psalm 104, the equivalent in the Hebrew religion. Aye is rewarded for his role in the building. Akhnaten tries to touch the sun.
Act III Akhnaten, 1358 BC
The Family - Akhnaten, Nefertiti and the six princesses live within the city walls. Aye and Horemhab read letters to him from princes in outlying provinces of the empire calling for help against hostile powers which are threatening their existence. Akhnaten refuses to listen and eventually even Aye turns against him, rejecting the many marks of favour with which he has been rewarded over the years. Aye takes Nefertiti and her eldest daughter away. Akhnaten is left with only two of his daughters. The High Priest of Amon returns to form a triumvirate with Aye and Horemhab to overthrow the Pharoah.
Attack and Fall - The High priest, Aye, Horemhab and some of the Amon priests destroy the city. Akhnaten disappears -- perhaps he blinds himself.
The Ruins - Akhnaten, the Present - A group of tourists and their guide visit the ruins of Akhnaten's city.
Epilogue - The spirits of Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Tye still haunt the ruins of the city. The fighting continues, wheat is threshed, bricks are made.