Review: Akhnaten, London Coliseum

It has been 29 years since Akhnaten was revived at the Coliseum after its UK premiere in 1985. Widely considered one of Philip Glass’s finest works, and also the last of his trio of operas on characters that changed the world they lived in, expectations were high for this new production. It is directed by Improbable’s Phelim McDermott, who also directed Glass’s Satyagraha and The Perfect American for ENO. With a wonderful cast and an interesting – and at times magical – production, it is safe to say this Akhnaten is a glowing success.

The production, as the opera itself, mixes Ancient Egypt with the modern world, as if the story of this remarkable pharaoh is a haunting echo from the past. A multi-layered stage shows a mix of old and new, Egyptian symbolism and modern-day sensibility. The Skills Ensemble, choreographed by Sean Gandini, mixes juggling with the story – strange at first, but remarkably powerful when we realise it represents life and death and its unstable and changing balance. As the opera is constructed as a series of tableaux or separate scenes, the production intends to give a different flavour to each of them, creating powerful visual stills, remarkable costumes and slow-motion mysticism that, together with the never-changing rhythms, both entrance and enthral. On the other hand, it is true that the objective is not the portrayal of a realistic reconstruction of Egypt. The use of some actual symbols – hieroglyphs, the hawk-god Horus, language – and an aura of greatness and solemnity give the production a visually powerful and compelling element that complements Glass’s mesmerising music perfectly.

Akhnaten is a complex historical figure. Although we do know a good deal about his life and times, and about his decision to abolish the traditional Egyptian pantheon of gods and establishing Aton (the sun) as the only god, there are still many aspects that are not well-known at all. From his character to his physical appearance, it is always a matter of guesswork when it comes to portraying him in literature or on stage. The very conscious choice of a countertenor to play the part reflects some of the fascination Akhnaten exerts – on historians and the general public alike – when it comes to his purported ambiguous features and gender. This ambiguity is further stressed by a certain ‘feminine’ body shape – which we can see on sculptures and reliefs – that is well-exploited in this production through costumes. It is particularly between Akhnaten and Nefertiti that are fewer differences in costume, showing not only ambivalence but a unity that transcends feelings.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo takes the title role in what can only be described as an otherworldly performance. In a role that was written with Baroque singing in mind, Costanzo shines with a highly expressive legato, beautiful delicacy and a pure, eerily sound. Emma Carrington and Rebecca Bottone as Nefertiti and Queen Tye, respectively, match Costanzo with their beautiful sound. When singing together – like in the Window of Appearances scene – the three become one polyphonic sound that moves and soothes. The powerful love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti is a masterclass in balance and sound quality, carrying the melody with ease and soul.

James Cleverton (Horemhab), Clive Bayley (Aye) and Colin Judson (High Priest of Amon) are fantastic as representatives of the old religion, attacked by Akhnaten’s solar monotheism, taking their revenge in the end by precpitating the death of the pharaoh. The six daughters of Akhnaten are an effective and remarkable ensemble, physically attached to each other as one single body. However, special mentions must go to the ENO chorus, who give an outstanding performance with some rather powerful moments of sheer intensity; and to the ENO orchestra, conducted by Karen Kamensek. Hers is an example of committed conducting and absolute understanding of the complexity of Glass’s work, while being personal and expressive in her approach.

All the above makes for a transcendent evening, evoking a distant past and powerful images. With a stellar cast and a complex yet immensely rewarding production, this Akhnaten is more than an opera worth seeing: it is an experience worth living.

Akhnaten is playing at London Coliseum until 18 March. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website.

Image credit: Richard Hubert Smith