Philip Glass is a divisive figure. As a trailblazer of minimalism his importance as an iconic, not to say iconoclastic, purveyor of musical monotony is not in doubt, but as an operatic composer his credentials remain questionable. It takes a visionary director to tease the dramatic potential from his pointillistic dots and rests. Take Akhnaten: the language evolves through a kaleidoscope of melodic sequences, broken orchestral chords and scales in contrary motion; the absence of violins lends a dark hue to the orchestration that contrasts with the preponderance of high voices from the stage. Neal Hefti’s Batman sting (or something very much like it) pops up from time to time to make sure we don’t drift off. Yet the score’s beauty is undeniable. It’s hypnotic, subversive and… let’s move on before I repeat myself.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten)
© Belinda Jiao

In 2016 English National Opera’s chosen director, Phelim McDermott, rescued Akhnaten from three decades of neglect (on this side of the Atlantic at least) when he created this minor miracle of stagecraft as a follow-up to his work on Satyagraha. The opera’s scenario, remarkably true to what little is known of the forgotten Pharaoh, fired McDermott’s inner eye for beauty and his talent for richly-flavoured storytelling.

Unlike Glass, McDermott is never predictable. His biggest challenge was to create a visual representation of abstract faith (the historic Akhnaten was killed for attempting to impose a radical monotheism on his people, hence his obliteration from the annals of their history) – a theatrical headache, no doubt, until an Egyptian wall painting of a troupe of jugglers gave him a lightbulb moment. So it is that a ten-strong phalanx of deft and agile acrobats delivers complex routines almost non-stop through the opera’s three-act duration with, on opening night, no hint of a fumble. McDermott uses juggling as a metaphor for spiritual belief, a fragile thread binding heaven to earth. It is an inspired idea.

© Belinda Jiao

For the most part stately movement is the order of the day, much of it lateral in the manner of an ancient Egyptian illustration; all of it performed with confidence and precision by the ENO Chorus and an outstanding company of solo singers within the vivid layers of Tom Pye's exquisite designs

Glass creates two opposing sets of harmonised trios. In the Pharaoh's corner we find Akhnaten himself (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in a role that only he gets to play these days, apparently) along with his wife, Nefertiti (the gorgeously smoky mezzo tones of Chrystal E Williams) and his mother, Tye (Haegee Lee, a bright soprano). In the opposite corner are the voices of dissent, presented as archetypes from the church, the military and the state and equally well taken by Paul Curievici, Benson Wilson and Jolyon Loy respectively.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) and Gandini Juggling
© Belinda Jiao

As in previous incarnations of the production, Costanzo is extraordinary as much for his physical acting as his vocal performance. Act 1, which might as well be subtitled “Pharaoh gets dressed”, is a tour de force of fine singing and full-body muscle control while negotiating motor challenges like climbing steps in ultra-slo-mo. While his voice may be less ample than that of some other leading countertenors, the singer uses it with an expressive lyricism that makes his second-act hymn the opera's highlight. Only Zachary James as the show’s narrator (or Scribe, as he is listed – a speaking role) can match Costanzo for appearances in this production on either side of the Atlantic, and he remains an imposing figure, albeit one who, on this occasion, tended to gabble some of his words.

Haegee Lee (Queen Tye), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) and Zachary James (Scribe)
© Belinda Jiao

The young Pharaoh’s androgyny, which is a matter of record, is conveyed via a smock-petticoat decorated with female body parts that may be the simplest of Kevin Pollard’s spectacular costume designs but ends up being the most striking, for all the gilded splendour on display elsewhere. Bruno Poet’s lighting remains dazzling (in the best sense of the word) while Glass specialist Karen Kamensek draws ravishing musicianship from the ENO Orchestra. I would say “fight to get a ticket” or some such cliché, but this operatic cross between Cirque du (Dieu-)Soleil and Night at the Museum is a complete sell-out, and rightly so.