English National Opera
Phelim McDermott's production of Philip Glass's Akhnaten at English National Opera, featuring set designs by Tom Pye
© Richard Hubert Smith
Anthony Roth Costanzo as the eponymous Egyptian Pharaoh
© Richard Hubert Smith
ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA has done well by Philip Glass. Back in 1985, ENO became the first U.K. company to stage one of his operas—Akhnaten, then just one year old. ENO followed up with the first European performance of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 in 1988, Satyagraha in 2007, and the UK premiere of The Perfect American in 2013.
In return Glass has proved to be good box-office for ENO. The production of Satyagraha—by Phelim McDermott of the fluidly constituted creative theatre collective Improbable—has enjoyed two well-attended revivals. Advance bookings for the new Akhnaten (seen Mar. 4), also the work of McDermott & Co., were such that ENO was able to announce on the first night that the show would be the highest-selling contemporary work the company had ever presented. (At a time when a cut of £5 million year-on-year in its annual grant from Arts Council England threatens both ENO’s full-time status, and specifically the size and contracts of its chorus, such income is more than usually welcome.)
Akhnaten is the third part of the so-called “portrait” trilogy of Glass’s operas, each of which tackles the subject of a historical individual whose ideas changed the world: Einstein (Einstein on the Beach, 1976), Gandhi (Satyagraha, 1980) and finally the eponymous Egyptian Pharaoh in Akhnaten (1984).
The latter, who probably reigned between around 1351 and 1334 BC, dismissed Egypt’s ancient pantheon of gods and refocused his nation’s worship entirely on the sun-god, Aten. In the opera’s first act we witness the funeral of his father Amenhotep III, his coronation as the new Pharaoh, and his announcement of his change of name from Amenhotep IV to Akhnaten (“spirit of Aten”). The remainder of the piece presents Akhnaten’s repudiation of the old religion and its priests, the building of a new city dedicated to the sun-god, and finally the isolation of the king and his family from a nation that wishes to return to its old faith and which eventually overthrows them. At the end Akhnaten’s son Tutankhamun is crowned by the pantheistic priests—a scene counterpointed by the vision of a group of modern-day students being taught the historical subject by their professor. The result is effectively a meditation on the transience of human achievement and the processes of historical change.
Akhnaten is a fine example of Glass’s most elevated operatic style in that it comprises more a sequence of rituals than a narrative in the traditional sense. In Tom Pye’s monumental, multi-level sets and Kevin Pollard’s gorgeously colorful and extravagantly complex costumes, each scene became sharply etched in the visual memory. Extra fascination was provided by the involvement of the ten-strong skills ensemble Gandini Juggling, whose director, Sean Gandini, choreographed its various complex routines, one of the most spectacular of which saw the audience applaud during the music itself—a rare event in any contemporary opera. (Juggling is apparently illustrated on the walls of some ancient Egyptian tombs.)
A libretto mainly sung in ancient Egyptian, ancient Hebrew and Akkadian (an extinct tongue long spoken in Mesopotamia) is clearly intended less for instant communication than for color and atmosphere, but the role of the Scribe—a character left out, incidentally, of ENO’s 1985 staging, but here taken with firmness and clarity by bass Zachary James—provided a useful narrative framework with his periodic Anglophone pronouncements.
All in all, the staging combined spectacle (no bad thing in the theatre possessing the widest proscenium arch in London, and an equivalently vast stage) with meaning, McDermott’s rich imagination coming up with a constant flow of images that exemplified the ideas upon which the piece is based.
Individual vocal performances, too, were powerful as well as aptly cast. The plangent tones of countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo represented the doomed Akhnaten, the elegant mezzo-soprano of Emma Carrington his queen and wife Nefertiti, and the grandeur of soprano Rebecca Bottone the concerns of his ambitious mother, Tye. The rich sonorities of Clive Bayley’s bass gave him considerable authority as Aye, Nefertiti’s father and Akhnaten’s advisor. The ENO orchestra and chorus both had an exceptional evening under the baton of Karen Kamensek, who articulated with a steady hand a score characteristically made up of multiple repetitions of simple, tiny ideas. —George Hall