Ancient Egyptian culture is so strongly associated with a worship of a multitude of gods and goddesses (as well as pyramids, hieroglyphics and mummies) that few people know about Akhnaten, the father of Tutankhamun and first monotheist Pharaoh of Egypt. This all changed in 1983 when world-renowned composer Philip Glass thrust Akhnaten into the spotlight in his aptly named opera, Akhnaten. First performed in the UK in 1985, Akhnaten forms the last part of Glass’ portrait operas; operas exploring the lives of some of the greatest historical figures (Einstein, Gandhi and the aforementioned Akhnaten). In 2016 a new production of the opera, directed by Phelim McDermott, won the 2017 Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production. Now, a revival of that 2016 production, starring many of the same cast and once again directed by McDermott, returns to the London Coliseum for a limited run of seven performances.
Akhnaten begins with the death of the previous Pharaoh, Amenhotep III, and the subsequent coronation of Akhnaten, played by Anthony Roth Costanzo. Over the course of the three acts, the opera explores various elements of Akhnaten’s life, from his take-over of the polytheist temples, his relationship with wife Nefertiti (Katie Stevenson) and his construction of the city of Amarna.
Glass’ score (conducted by Karen Kamensek) is hauntingly beautiful, but his repetitive, long phrases take a while to become used to for those new to his work and, like all unconventional composers, his minimalist style which emphasises small, gradual changes in pieces may not appeal to all. As a result, some may find themselves either enthralled in a calming, almost hypnotic state or others frustrated by the lack of action and change in music; audiences need to be fully awake in order to tune into the collective catharsis.
McDermott’s staging is sublime and there are some particularly striking stage pictures, in particular the opening and closing scenes, where I felt like I was watching paintings come alive. Costanzo (counter-tenor) and Stevenson’s (alto) voices marry beautifully and across the cast the vocals are stunning, especially those of Zachary James who reprises his role as the Scribe. Being an ENO production, most of the songs are in English and even though some are in the original Hebrew and Egyptian (and there are no accompanying surtitles), not understanding the text doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the experience. Accompanying the principles is a large chorus and members of the Gandini Juggling Company. Although the jugglers are incredibly choreographed and in sync, at times their juggling feels like it adds a sense of stress to the performance; though this dissipates slightly when the first ball is dropped and the performers handle the situation swiftly and effectively.
Visually stunning with some creative and impressive staging, the revival of Akhnaten is incredibly well-performed and fans of Glass won’t be disappointed.
Akhnaten is playing at the London Coliseum until 7 March. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website.