United Kingdom Glass, Akhnaten: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Karen Kamensek (conductor), London Coliseum, 8.3.2016. (CC)
Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Costanza
Nefertiti: Emma Carrington
Queen Tye: Rebecca Bottone
Scribe: Zachary James
Aye: Clive Bayley
Harembab: James Cleverton
Daughters of Akhnaten: Clare Eggington (Bekhetaten); Alexa Mason (Meretaten); Rosie Lomas (Maketaten); Anna Huntley (Ankhesenpaaren); Katie Bray (Neferneferuaten); Victoria Gray (Sotopenre)
Director: Phelim McDermott
Set Designer: Tom Pye
Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Choreography: Sean Gandini
Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten has a special flavour all of its own amongst Glass’s operatic output (so far). Perhaps it is the absence of violins, giving the sound a bass-rich basis; perhaps it is that Glass’ characteristic repetitions have a ritualistic aspect that is entirely apposite to the religious practices of Ancient Egypt. One interesting angle on that was the use of jugglers (Gandini Juggling), predominantly on one of the three tiers of the set. Juggling has been identified with Ancient Egypt via found depictions, and one should note that the very shape of the ball reflects that of the sun on a microcosmic level; further, the repetitive-yet-varied nature of juggling itself (the ball repeatedly kept in the air, but the direction varying from time to time) seems perfectly in accord with the basic tenets of musical minimalism itself. Phelim McDermott’s production’s strength is its congruence with Glass’ musical processes in this opera, from Bruno Poet’s lighting (which seems to reflect the darker textures of the orchestra rather than the light from the Sun God more often than not, and quite rightly) through to Tom Pye’s sets, which seem to make maximal use of the Coliseum space.
Akhnaten is part of a trio of operas that celebrate individuals that have had a profound impact on the course of history: Satyagraha (on Gandhi, and memorably performed at ENO in November 2013) and Einstein on the Beach (its heavenly length last on display in the UK at the Barbican) are the other two. Arguably it was Akhnaten’s admittedly short-lived achievement that was the most significant, a melding of Egypt’s rampant polytheism into One God: here, the Sun God. Originally called Amenhotep (“Amen is pleased”, the same name as his father), Amenhoten IV changed his name to Akhnaten (“The Spirit of the Aten/Sun”) about five years into his reign. His influence lives on perhaps most strongly in the Rosicrucian Order (most commonly seen in its A.M.O.R.C. form), a group that traces its origins back to Thutmose III as founder, but which sees Akhnaten’s zeroing in on the one God as massively significant in planting this idea in history, this despite the re-emergence of polytheism following Akhnaten’s reign. Akhnaten is continuously associated not only with the sun but with a specific aspect: the sun’s rays, seen as radiating from his head and body.
Akhnaten himself was allegedly hermaphroditic: hence he is seen at one point in see-through material with breasts, and elsewhere as completely naked and very obviously fully male-equipped: somehow the use of a counter-tenor seems perfect for this part. Costumes are not exclusively of the time period: there seems to be an eccentric ex-general around, for example. Yet we are transported back across the millennia to an ancient era, the true nature of which we can only speculate. The chorus is vital to this piece (off-stage in the second act) and was in phenomenal voice on this occasion. As Akhnaten, counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanza, who has previously sung in The Indian Queen for ENO, seemed perfect for the role, his voice not only blessed with the requisite strength, but also of a decidedly otherworldly quality.
John Richardson’s excellent programme essay, “Exploring Akhnaten” points out that the vocal ranges of the roles of Akhnaten and his wife, Nefertiti, are broadly similar and often intertwine in the manner of vocal writing of the Renaissance and Baroque. And they do, to simply beautiful effect. Young mezzo Emma Carrington was a stunning Nefertiti, her voice supremely matched to Costanza’s. Soprano Rebecca Bottone made a welcome appearance as Queen Tye (Akhnaten’s mother), and the trio of Tye, Nefertiti and Akhnaten at the close of the first act, glorifying the sun, was simply remarkable and vastly musically satisfying. Neither was it the only ravishing ensemble of the evening.
Bass Zachary James, who had taken the role of Abraham Lincoln in the recent Perfect American, was the Scribe who got to deliver his lines in English (no surtitles, and much of the rest of the libretto is sung in Egyptian). Attired in suit and top hat, the ever-reliable Clive Bayley was solid as Aye, Nefertiti’s father; James Cleverton was a treat as the general Harembab. The daughters of Akhnaten (naming them individually feels a bit like naming the Valkyries one by one: onerous and never quite worth the effort) worked beautifully together as an ensemble.
Keeping it all under a tight rein was conductor Karen Kamensek, making a most laudable ENO debut. The orchestra clearly found her direction stimulating, as they were on top form throughout.
I was lucky enough to see Akhnaten last time round at ENO, in the 1980s, in the staging by David Freeman. This new staging resonates deeper, something perhaps shown best by the very end of the opera. Fast forward thousands of years, and a group of tourists is being taken round the ruins of the temple. In the 1980s this struck me as a crass miscalculation as they wandered around the set, caricatures of American touristic curiosity; in the present instance, the tour leader is seen more subtly in the right-hand corner of the stage, and is a more informed lecturer. Akhnaten is a much-excerpted opera, and deservedly so, from the Naxos orchestral excerpts reviewed by myself back in 2000 to the recent appearance of the Act 2 Scene 3 Dance for solo piano in an arrangement by P. Barnes as part of a “Trilogy Sonata” (where it shares space with excerpts from Satyagraha and Einstein) on Grand Piano GP691, where it is performed by Nicolas Horvath. The score is rich, the subject both thought-provoking and resonant on a very deep level. We’re a long way from the word of Disney (The Perfect American, reviewed by myself here), a testament perhaps to the true variety the operas of Philip Glass really can offer. A remarkable piece in a remarkable staging.