Akhnaten - ENO

ENO bringing Egyptian archaeology to life on stage with Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten. ENO encourages photos of their theatre’s interior and the curtain-calls; my phone’s lens gives just a taster of this production’s sumptuous costumes and props. #enoakhnaten

London Coliseum. interior

Philip Glass - Akhnaten

Thirty-five years or so on from the premiere of Akhnaten, Philip Glass’ opera about the Egyptian sun god, we are much more practiced at reading symbolism and conceptualism on stage. This now seems like a period piece, rather grand and indulgent but still at first sight, also rather vacuous. The thrill is in seeing Egyptian archaeology come to life on stage with so much precision movement and synchronised juggling which reflects Philip Glass’ minimalist music composed of so many repetitive structures.

Back in the Seventies, before Trance music was ever identified as a style, we had heard Yes, then there was Kraftwerk and then we became aware of the music of Phillip Glass. It was a time of musical tribalism, to be a follower of Glass’s music was to have seen the light, to have been initiated in to a religion. There were households where you were force-fed Akhnaten on headphones, Act 1 was particularly popular for this purpose.
Some of those fanatics are still around and some of them were at the Coliseum at last night’s revival. A couple next to me settled their hands and put on their transcendental mediation faces as the lights dimmed and the repetitive chords of Act 1 started up.
I bought the CDs in the Eighties when Akhnaten was premiered in London but unfortunately didn’t make much of them as opera, although I wasn’t one of those who used them as background music for a dinner party; it seemed to me that you need to see a production to make sense of Philip Glass’ musical language. So seeing the ENO production at last on the stage at the Coliseum is a treat, if not a trip.
Modern production technology ensured it went off with hardly a hiccup, indeed the slide-show accompanying the tour guide seemed to have jerkiness deliberately introduced, a nice touch. The jugglers seemed to never drop a ball, ever. And the music was impeccable, Karen Kamensek’s conducting holding the ensemble together whilst driving forwards. I saw some particularly visual conducting of the soloists in the trio in Act 3, which seems to be vocal sounds but no words.
ENO publicity informs that Akhnaten is “Sung in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian with no surtitles”. That’s unnecessarily obscure as there’s a narrator who speaks in English and also Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten sings in English for his major solo in Act 2; the clear strong sound of his counter-tenor voice is alien to most of us, which adds to the dramatic distancing of him as the sun god. I think his voice was unamplified, but  it’s hard to be certain as so much of the rest of the production sound is at least reinforced by loudspeakers.
Once Akhnaten has been born - there’s a cameo amidst much repetitive movement by the courtiers - he appears fully-naked, whence he is dressed on stage and the god is created. The nakedness is justified, you do look at the god character differently when you know there is just a man inside the costume and frame, which makes him look a superhuman. Mind you, Anthony Roth Costanzo has almost super-human abs, he clearly goes to the gym. Then follows the celebrated moment in Act 1 where Akhnaten, counter-tenor, is singing music more treble than Katie Stevenson, mezzo-soprano, as his Chief Consort, Queen Nefertiti.
Seeing Act 2 on stage was not as much a revelation as Act 1, and there was a noticeable exodus of audience who never came back for Act 3. But they missed out on Act 3, finishing the story, reminding us that Akhnaten was the father and Nefertiti his Chief Consort were the parents of Tutankhamun, whose mask had toured museums in the west around the time that Philip Glass’ opera was first produced. It’s scheduled to do the rounds again in the next few years: bringing archaeology to life on stage goes full circle.
And is reconstruction archaeology really what Akhnaten is about? The staging recalls stories told on papyrus in hieroglyphics, the repetitive music and slow moving stage action make a go at reconstructing ancient religion. Maybe. As the astronomer Patrick Moore used to say “We just don’t know”.
Some advertising on the tube as I go home recalls the huge sun globe of Act 2 for the Science Museum’s exhibition “The Sun”. Whether or not you are a believer in Phillip Glass, his influence continues and of course Akhnaten is a contemporary masterpiece.

Philip Glass - Akhnaten

Creative Team

Karen Kamensek - Conductor
Phelim McDermott - Director
Tom Pye - Set Designer
Kevin Pollard - Costume Designer
Bruno Poet - Lighting Designer
Sean Gandini - Skills Ensemble Choreographer


Anthony Roth Costanzo - Akhnaten
Katie Stevenson - Nefertiti
Rebecca Bottone - Queen Tye
James Cleverton - Horemhab
Keel Watson- Aye
Colin Judson - High Priest of Amon
Zachary James - The Scribe
Charlotte Shaw - Daughter of Akhnaten
Hazel McBain - Daughter of Akhnaten
Rosie Lomas - Daughter of Akhnaten
Elizabeth Lynch - Daughter of Akhnaten
Martha Jones - Daughter of Akhnaten
Angharad Lyddon - Daughter of Akhnaten