Philip Glass: Akhnaten
English National Opera
The Coliseum. 4 February 2016
What a lot of balls! For those expecting yet another press tirade about an English National Opera production (although very rarely from me), I stress that I use these words absolutely literally. For, in this powerful staging of Philip Glass opera, jugglers were a key part of the staging, courtesy of the Gandini Juggling Company whose director also choreographed the opera. It was directed by Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre Company and conducted by Karen Kamensek, an expert on the music of Philip Glass, making an excellent ENO debut.
As the name suggests, Glass’s Akhnaten explores aspects of the story of the historical Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten (note the different spelling), his wife, the noted beauty Nefertiti (Emma Carrington) and mother, Queen Tye (Rebecca Bottone). It has an unusual construction for an opera, with a structure more akin to a series of tableaux, with three or four scenes in each of the three acts. It starts with the death and funeral of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, the father of Akhenaten, in a complex and very busy triple-decker staging with the chorus and jugglers on stages above the solemn ceremonies going on below. The young Akhnaten (Amenhotep IV) first appears totally naked, processing slowly down a staircase to be dressed for his coronation, a remarkable transformation scene which moves from vulnerable nakedness to an extraordinarily baroque concoction of cloaks and bustles. After his coronation, he appears with Nefertiti and Tye at the ‘Window of Appearances’ to announce his change of name, formation of the new monotheistic religion and to praise the rising sun.
The plot then moves forward several years to explore aspects of Akhnaten’s reign, notably banishing the old religion and building his new city together with a love scene between him and Nefertiti and the final Hymn to the Sun. After a touching scene with his six daughters, the third act depicts his downfall together with the crowing of his son, Tutenkhamun, the latter with a superimposed illustrated lecture given by a present day tour guide to the right of the stage. Apart from a narrator speaking in English and the Hymn to the Sun, the text is sung in original languages, taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Amarnac texts and Biblical Hebrew.
Visually the production fielded a sometimes bewildering array of images, with strong lighting, stage sets ranging from practically zero to the opening elaborate three-decker and with costumes ranging from the outlandish to a weird impression of a present day Masonic elder. It seemed a little out of kilter with the Glass’s minimalist approach to the music, but perhaps that was no bad thing. Actually the music is rather more approachable than much of the minimalist repertoire, although A minor begins to grate after a while and there are extended period when musically and action-wise nothing much seems to happen – gaps not always filled by the inevitable juggling. Despite the many opportunities for it all to fall flat, it all worked incredible well, a view clearly shared by the very enthusiastic packed opening night audience. Some licence with the historical story is taken, not least the transformation of Akhnaten into a busty and bushy-tailed (so to speak) hermaphrodite.
The singing and acting was excellent from all, led by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, his voice revealing grounding in early music, not least in his ability to control his vibrato when appropriate. This is a type of music when I favour vibrato, perhaps influence by the early recordings of works like this when a very feminine and frankly wobbly countertenor seemed to be in vogue. It is a compelling sound that seems to fit the music – a bit like Edith Piaf.
The orchestra is similar in size to a Classical orchestra, but without any violins, because the Stuttgart State Theatre (venue for the premiere, as the opera house was being restored) only had a small orchestra pit. Sound-wise my only quibble was with the rather shrill synthesiser, that often overpowered the rest of the orchestra in a manner, and in a tone, that I don’t think Philip Glass would approve of. Karen Kamensek’s conducting was excellent, both technically and musically, her clear and precise beat and directions to the players no doubt making the score easier for them to work through. It stays in repertoire until mid-March (2016), and is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 March.
Photos by ENO/Richard Hubert Smith