Of Philip Glass’s many, many operas — 30 or so, depending on how you count — “Akhnaten” may be the most ritualistic and mystical. With the subdued, undulating opening of the long orchestral prelude, Mr. Glass is sending a message: Put aside your typical expectations of music drama. This isn’t “Tosca”; you’re on Glass time.
If even stylized action therefore takes a while to get going, that’s surely the effect Mr. Glass was aiming for. And that’s how it came across on Friday, when the Metropolitan Opera presented the company premiere of this spellbinding 1984 meditation on the tumultuous rule of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who is said to have pioneered monotheism and been overthrown for that blasphemy.
Phelim McDermott’s staging, with designs by Tom Pye, makes a virtue of the slow-building, mood-setting opening scenes. During that prelude, we see only a screen with splotchy colors and shadowy hints of people behind, while the music gradually unfolds.
Though Mr. Glass has never liked the term “Minimalism,” to which he has become irrevocably connected, it suggests how his work casts its spell. Groups of beats in shifting metrical combinations churn constantly in midrange instruments, as oscillating two-note riffs, spiraling arpeggios, or rising and falling scales float above or hover below. The production’s conductor, Karen Kamensek, making her Met debut, conveyed the ripple, flow and quiet urgency of the music without fixating on precision.
Mr. McDermott had a triumph at the Met in 2008 with a production of Mr. Glass’s “Satyagraha,” about Gandhi’s nonviolent activism. “Satyagraha” came between “Einstein on the Beach” (1976) and “Akhnaten” in this composer’s “portrait” trilogy, inspired by three visionaries of history.
This “Akhnaten” staging is not as revelatory as the “Satyagraha.” The riskiest element involves a 12-person troupe of jugglers — Sean Gandini, the director of Gandini Juggling, is credited as choreographer — in spandex catsuits. The circuslike juggling provides an apt visual representation of the spiraling rhythms of Mr. Glass’s music. The images also suggest the roiling tensions incited by Akhnaten’s rule, as opposition builds up to the climactic confrontation in which he is deposed and killed. Still, there was too much juggling; it became intrusive and one-note.
But the production largely succeeds at Mr. McDermott’s goal of presenting “Akhnaten” as a “weird fever dream” combining ancient Egypt and the Victorians who fetishized it, as he said in a New York Times interview. The set — slightly steampunk, with corrugated metal walls and industrial-style platforms — coexists with fantastical evocations of the pharaoh’s world; an Egyptian aristocrat is dressed like a 19th-century gentleman, but with a skull embedded in his top hat.
Mr. Glass and his collaborators assembled the libretto from ancient Egyptian, Akkadian and Hebrew sources, though crucial passages are intended to be spoken in the language of the audience by a character called the Scribe. Mr. McDermott has chosen to have the texts delivered by the ghost of Akhnaten’s father, played by Zachary James, who looks imposing in his sequined regalia and speaks the lines with chilling intensity.
The opera begins with the extended scene of his funeral. Finally — and it felt like a long wait — the new pharaoh, Akhnaten, appears: the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. When attendants remove the stiff garment that encases him, Mr. Costanzo stands motionless on a platform, completely naked. Staring ahead with uncanny focus, he looks like a young man overcome with the momentousness of the ceremony — not just a coronation, but also a public ritual of rebirth. His nudity makes him seem at once fearless and vulnerable.
Before he sings a note, Mr. Costanzo already seems to be nursing a radical agenda, which involves, as we soon learn, transforming Egypt from a polytheistic society to one embracing a single god, Aten, whose energy fills the sun.
In the next scene, Mr. Costanzo sings the opening phrases of a hymn of acceptance with gleaming high notes and melting sound that cut through the orchestra with surprising ease. This blossoms into a ravishing trio for Akhnaten, his wife, Nefertiti (the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, in an auspicious Met debut), and his mother, Queen Tye (the radiant soprano Disella Larusdottir).
With this trio and other set pieces, Mr. Glass does create something with the outlines of old-fashioned operatic structure. Act II concludes with an aria: Akhnaten’s pensive hymn to Aten, the young pharaoh’s most private moment and some of Mr. Glass’s most richly harmonic writing. Ms. Costanzo sings with exceptional tenderness while bringing out inflections in the music that hint at the character’s isolation and insecurity.
For Act II, Mr. Glass also perhaps came the closest in his career to writing a traditional operatic love duet, as Akhnaten and Nefertiti affirm their devotion in plaintive phrases that waft and intertwine, while the orchestra suggests their teeming inner emotions.
Wearing gauzy red robes with extravagantly long trains, Mr. Costanzo and Ms. Bridges seem at once otherworldly and achingly real. His ethereal tones combine affectingly with her plush, deep-set voice. Ms. Kamensek, while keeping the orchestra supportive, brings out the restless rhythmic elements that suggest the couple’s intensity.
The excellent cast also includes Richard Bernstein as Nefertiti’s father, Aaron Blake as a high priest and Will Liverman as the general who leads the assault on Akhnaten. The enormous ovation for Ms. Kamensek, one of just five female conductors in the Met’s history, was heartening. And Mr. Costanzo, who sang the title role when this production was introduced in London and later presented in Los Angeles, truly owns it.
The final scene shows a group of irreverent modern-day students in a classroom, tossing paper wads as a professor lectures them on the information gleaned from an excavation of the city Akhnaten built in praise of Aten. We see the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye voicing forlorn, wordless refrains. Are they anxious about how history has remembered them?
Mr. Glass, 82, who received the biggest ovation when he appeared onstage, has no such worries. In a recent interview with The New York Times, asked about his legacy, and whether his music will endure, Mr. Glass said simply: “I won’t be around for all that. It doesn’t matter.”
Continues through Dec. 7 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.