ENO’s Triumphant Akhnaten Revival Shrouds Audiences in Minimalism and Provides Balm

13/02/2019

Glass, Akhnaten (performed in Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew and English): Soloists, Gandini Juggling Company, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Karen Kamensek (conductor), London Coliseum, 11.2.2019. (CC)

Anthony Roth Costanza (Akhnaten) © Jane Hobson.

Production:

Director – Phelim McDermott
Set designer – Tom Pye
Costume designer – Kevin Pollard
Lighting designer – Bruno Poet
Revival Lighting – Gary James
Choreography – Sean Gandini

Cast:

Akhnaten – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Nefertiti – Katie Stevenson
Queen Tye – Rebecca Bottone
Horemhab – James Cleverton
Aye – Keel Watson
High Priest of Amon – Colin Judson
The Scribe – Zachary James
Daughters of Akhnaten:
Bekhetaten – Charlotte Shaw
Meretaten – Hazel McBain
Maketaten – Rosie Lomas
Ankhesenpaaten – Elizabeth Lynch
Neferneferuaten – Martha Jones
Sotopenre – Angharad Lyddon

This was the first London revival of this production since its sell-out first run in 2016; it is also ENO’s second production of Akhnaten (I have vivid memories of the early 1980s production, one of my early trips to St Martin’s Lane).

I reported on the Oliver Award-winning (Best New Opera Production) 2016 run here, where I mused on the juggling aspect (found in illustrations by the Egyptians, so relevant) and the mystical impact of Akhnaten on belief systems that followed. The work contains many of Glass’s finest qualities: masterly manipulation of his material in that characteristic minimalist mode; deliberate undermining of expectations of vocal understanding (no surtitles and the use of obscure languages, just as he used Sanskrit in Satyagraha: see my reviews of ENO’s staging of Satyagraha, also directed by Phelim McDermott in 2016: review and in 2013: review); an astonishing rethinking of what drama and theatre actually mean. But it is the sheer sonic beauty of much of Akhnaten’s score, most especially perhaps in the Act II Nefertiti/Akhnaten duet ‘I breathe the sweet breath’ where female voice is pitted with other-worldly counter-tenor, that remains so etched in the memory.

The Pharaoh Akhnaten it was that provided the precursor to a more widespread monotheism; his God though was Ra, the Sun God. And so it is that sun imagery dominates, from huge balls that morph from one colour to another to those juggling balls. And it is those juggling balls that create the link between the sphere of man and the sun, their continual, mesmeric movement, whether aerially or across the stage floor, impelling us ever onwards (and not one ball was dropped all night).

Sets by Tom Pye remain effective in their simplicity. They work in tandem with, rather than being enhanced by, Bruno Poet’s lighting (here under revival lighting director Gary James). Segmenting the stage initially into three with different images that will recur implies that the tread of time as we know it is altered here; an idea underlined by the sudden shift in the work’s final stages (to the present-day tourists and, in the Epilogue, the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye). The whole is as much a feast for the eye as it is for the ear, and Karen Kamensek, who returns to conduct, inspires her forces to remarkable feats of control. The ENO Orchestra surely respects her limitlessly, for they play like Gods and Goddesses themselves. Coupled with this is Kamensek’s understanding of the pacing of the individual scenes (which are really tableaux); so it was that aforementioned Act II duet unfolded with perfect unhurried sense

Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo returns in the title role; his demeanour suggests a physical vulnerability but also an alien other-worldliness that is echoed in his baldness and hermaphroditic elements (seen most notably in see-through garb). His voice, too, has a sense of dislocation from reality. His women (his mother, Queen Tye, and his wife, Nefertiti) seem perfectly cast and the casting itself allows us to warmly welcome ENO Harewood Artist Katie Stevenson, who only as recently as 2017 made her ENO debut in Marnie as Shadow Marnie. This is her first lead role, and many others will doubtless follow. Her voice is strong, and beautiful, her stage presence all that one could want. Rebecca Bottone returns as Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye, whose voice complements Stevenson and Costanzo perfectly. Heard in trio (the Window of Appearances at the end of the first act), the effect is remarkable.

Another returner is the excellent bass Zachary James as the Scribe, perfectly delivering his spoken (English) lines which act as a linguistic anchor for the audience. But if any opera is not about  operatic ‘stars’, it is this one. Certainly, we have the foregrounded Akhnaten; but those that surround him act as a perfectly balanced team that Glass presents in masterly fashion, from Akhnaten’s six daughters to the High Priest of Colin Judson and the Aye of Keel Watson. The ENO Chorus was in fine voice at all dynamic levels.

It is no surprise to learn that Kamensek specialises in Glass’s music and that she presided over the premiere of Orphée in New York. She is clearly an inspirational force in this music, just as she realises exactly how it works on all of its many levels. Dramatically, this Akhnaten is a triumph, its previous award richly deserved; musically, arguably, it is finer still. Exiting the flow of time to experience Akhnaten in a shroud of minimalism in these uncertain pre-Brexit times is balm indeed.

Colin Clarke

For information about future ENO performances click here.

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