Philip Glass’s 1983 Akhnaten is, I suppose, an opera. It has, after all, singers, an orchestra, chorus, staging, even arias. But Akhnaten diverges so far in so many different aspects from one’s standard expectations of opera that it’s hard to find a point of reference: nothing is what you expect. The results, however, make for utterly absorbing listening and – especially – viewing. Visually, Phelim McDermott’s new production for English National Opera never falls short of spectacular.
Most of us have strong mental images of ancient Egypt. Tom Pye’s sets and Kevin Pollard’s costumes continually refer us to those images – the silhouetted views in profile, the heads of animal gods, the regal headdresses – without ever attempting to be “period costumes”. With the help of Bruno Poet’s lighting, they keep springing surprises on us: the scene in which Akhnaten is dressed for his coronation, from stark full frontal nakedness to orientalist baroque regalia of extreme opulence, surrounded by light rays to pick out the famous Egyptian sun god iconography, is just one of many visual delights; the great orb which shifts colours as Act II progresses is another. This is a production that is constantly watchable in the same way that Glass’s music is constantly fascinating to the ear.
Before coming to Akhnaten, I could not have conceived of how an opera could have a single pace for the whole narrative – glacially slow – and none the less be utterly enthralling from beginning to end. And while I’m not at all convinced that I’ve taken in any of the underlying messages, this production has genuinely expanded my operatic horizons. A winner.
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