English National Opera’s Akhnaten Could Hardly be Bettered at the London Coliseum

Xl__akhnaten-eno-2023-c-belinda-jiao-22 © Belinda Jiao

Philip Glass, who is recognised as one of the leading proponents of minimalism in the world today, has written over twenty-five operas, a total achieved by hardly any composer since the days of Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi. Three of these form the ‘portrait trilogy’, which focuses on pivotal figures in the fields of science, politics and religion respectively. Einstein on the Beach premiered in 1976, Satyagraha (about Mahatma Gandhi) followed in 1980, and then the triptych was completed four years later with Akhnaten. This final opera appeared at English National Opera in 1985 and 1987, but was not seen again at the Coliseum until a new production from Improbable director Phelim McDermott was introduced in 2016. It was revived in 2019 when it also appeared in New York, with the Metropolitan Opera proceeding to show the work online several times during lockdown before bringing it back in 2022.

The opera explores the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who renamed himself Akhnaten as he changed Egypt’s entire religion to worship the sun god Aten. Although the story is told chronologically, the piece is not predominantly plot driven, with the majority of scenes meditating on an event that occurred during Akhnaten’s reign, whether that be his coronation or his building of the new city of Akhetaten. In keeping with this, and in the same way that Satyagraha is sung in Sanskrit, the majority of sections are presented in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, although the Scribe delivers his spoken lines in English while one scene is always intended to be delivered in the language of the current audience. The variety of languages used reflects the diversity of the texts that are employed, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the programme, which includes full translations and a synopsis, explains everything clearly.

The opera is sumptuously presented with Tom Pye’s sets often seeing activity occur simultaneously on three levels. For example, the main action might take place on the ground, while the chorus occupies the first level of scaffolding and jugglers the second. Juggling is, in fact, a key component of the staging with the actions of the Gandini Juggling troupe complementing the minimalist music well. The choice to include this element was inspired by a tomb painting in Egypt’s Beni Hasan cemetery complex, with the actions on stage frequently mirroring those seen in that picture so that we witness some juggling with the arms crossed.

Akhnaten’, opera by Philip Glass produced by Phelim McDermott © Belinda Jiao / English National Opera.

The visual images created are stunning, particularly in a scene in which the new city of Akhetaten is shown to be built. Here the complexity of the formations as the jugglers pass balls to each other really gives the impression of something extremely large and complex being constructed. As the scene goes on the balls become bigger and a huge one appears, thus representing the completed city that worships the sun. Dr Robert Bianchi has suggested that the appearance of jugglers in wall paintings may be ‘an analogy between balls and circular mirrors, as round things were used to represent solar objects, birth and death’. On this stage, however, they might also signify atoms, thus contrasting ancient and modern understanding concerning the basis of life.

Synergies between the past and present are also highlighted by seeing Kevin Pollard’s costumes cross eras, although almost all of the various headdresses worn bear Egyptian motifs. In fact, the interaction between ancient and modern is a very important component of the opera. Akhnaten is seen as a key figure in the development of monotheism, and the interest we show in him today for his long-term influence on the world means that in a sense his aim to achieve immortality was realised.

Conversely, the opera also reveals how short-lived this pharaoh’s dream was. On his death, the old religion was restored (under Tutankhamun) and the city he founded abandoned. In fact, we see a modern day lecturer boring his students by pointing out that everything from it is now either missing, badly damaged or too far out to be worth the trek to see. The sadness generated from seeing Akhnaten killed, and his limp, lifeless body cradled, also makes the work feel highly emotional as even the sight and sound of the jugglers’ balls falling to the ground for the final time possesses a strange poetry.

Akhnaten’, opera by Philip Glass produced by Phelim McDermott © Belinda Jiao / English National Opera. Pictured: Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten), Chrystal E. Williams (Nefertiti).

This production shows English National Opera at its best, and has been strong from the outset. It has similarly always boasted excellent casts, but the one assembled for this current revival feels as good as ever. Anthony Roth Costanzo has played Akhnaten in every outing of this production in both London and New York and he embodies the role so completely that it is hard to picture anyone else ever playing it. The brilliance of his countertenor sees it, paradoxically perhaps, combine total purity with real edge to produce a sound of spellbinding clarity. Equally impressive is the manner in which he thoroughly commands the stage through stillness and slow movements so that he really does feel otherworldly and god-like, even though it remains as easy to appreciate his vulnerability as his power. His various duets and trios with Haegee Lee’s Queen Tye and Chrystal E. Williams’ Nefertiti are also captivating because all three contribute such different things that together work so well. The purity of Costanzo’s countertenor meets with the astonishing vibrancy of Lee’s soprano and the beauty and strength of Williams’ mezzo-soprano to produce some extremely special moments.

The ‘trio’ comprising Benson Wilson as Horemhab, Jolyon Loy as Aye and Paul Curievici as the High Priest of Amon is also notably effective. Although once again much of their movement is in ‘slow motion’, they convey energy by being so obviously inside their roles. When they sing together there is a certain passion to their sound that ensures each voice can be distinctly heard, even while together they produce the perfect blend. Besides Costanzo, this revival includes two other people who have featured in every outing of this production. The first is Zachary James as the Scribe who once again proves to be as authoritative as he is informative as he narrates the piece. The other is conductor Karen Kamensek who has always proved adept at bringing out the colours and textures in the score, but on this occasion ensures that the pace is as masterly as ever. It is not that she specifically takes the score at a different speed to before, but that there is a confidence in the way in which she manages it that makes the music feel more hypnotic than ever because so much care and attention is paid to its nuances. This Akhnaten has always been one of the jewels in the crown of English National Opera, but on this occasion it comes across even better than before.

By Sam Smith

Akhnaten | 11 March - 5 April 2023 | London Coliseum

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