For the uninitiated, it’s not exactly an evening pregnant with promise: an opera largely sung in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian, without surtitles, its two hour score chugging through obsessive ostinatos of A minor arpeggios, with glacial modulations. Yet, somehow Philip GlassAkhnaten works. Set aside your ideas of traditional opera – this is a far cry from the love triangles, temples and triumphant marches of Aida – and submit to the mesmeric music played out in Phelim McDermott’s beautiful, ritualistic staging for English National Opera, and there’s every chance you’ll find yourself hypnotised under its spell.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) © Jane Hobson
Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten)
© Jane Hobson

Composed in 1983, Akhnaten is the third of Glass’ “portrait operas”, after Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. It recounts the life and death of the sun-worshipping pharaoh who banishes the ancient gods, relocates his capital city and promotes belief in one deity, the Aten. Overthrown by conservative reactionaries, Akhnaten is killed and we end with the restoration of the gods and the crowning of boy king, Tutankhamun. The libretto is assembled from documents dusted off by Egyptologists – a poem by Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) himself, funerary text from The Book of the Dead and decrees found in the archaeological site of Amarna, the city the pharaoh established during his 17-year reign. If that sounds like a dusty history lesson, it’s not, although McDermott turns Glass’ tongue-in-cheek epilogue, where tourists are guided around the ruins of Amarna, into a talk-and-chalk lecture after which Akhnaten is displayed in a museum exhibition case.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) © Jane Hobson
Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten)
© Jane Hobson

Otherwise, the artistic director of theatre company Improbable has created a production that respects the solemn, statuesque grandeur and epic ritual of Glass’ opera. Tom Pye’s set initially looks like the inside of a pharaoh’s tomb, split into chambers, actors in silhouette on the upper tier like animated hieroglyphs. Apart from a door in need of oiling, everything glides slickly, but always in slow motion. Kevin Pollard’s lavish costumes are spectacular, Akhnaten often caged in outlandish gilded robes or draped in skeins of gossamer-thin fabric with an impossibly long train which threatens to tie him and Nefertiti in knots.

McDermott’s trump card? Jugglers. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Justified by a photograph in the programme showing jugglers depicted on an Ancient Egyptian wall painting, the production is peppered by a troupe, the excellent Gandini Juggling Company, whose skills at keeping all manner of balls, clubs, beach balls and orbs aerial in time with Glass’ orchestral oscillations are truly remarkable. The only downside is that your eye is inevitably drawn to them, waiting for one of the balls to drop. The England cricket team’s slip cordon grounds more catches.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) and Gandini Jugglers © Jane Hobson
Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) and Gandini Jugglers
© Jane Hobson

Anthony Roth Costanzo returns in the title role, his penetrating countertenor – as smooth as his waxed body – piercing the orchestral tissue like a laser. So mesmerising was his beguiling Hymn to the Sun that it took a moment to register the momentary switch to English.

Katie Stevenson’s Nefertiti provided the perfect contrast, her smoky mezzo and warm vibrato leading to an unusual blend in duet. Rebecca Bottone returns to the role of Queen Tye, Akhnaten’s mother, her soprano scaling Glass’ dizzying heights with ease.

Katie Stevenson (Nefertiti), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) and Rebecca Bottone (Queen Tye) © Jane Hobson
Katie Stevenson (Nefertiti), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) and Rebecca Bottone (Queen Tye)
© Jane Hobson

Colin Judson, James Cleverton and Keel Watson, the latter in top hat adorned with a skull, projected firmly as the nefarious priesthood fired by Akhnaten. Zachary James once again powerfully declaimed the spoken invocations of the scribe narrator, a towering presence on stage, especially when he cradles the body of the dead pharaoh like Michelangelo’s Pietà.

ENO’s Chorus again proved its magnificence, especially in the heavy drumbeat funeral music for Akhnaten’s father. Another returnee is Karen Kamensek, leading ENO’s orchestra (minus violins) through this repetitive challenging opera in slow motion, often emphasising the undulating softness of the orchestration.

I truly loved Akhnaten last time round in 2016, when the Coliseum sold out all seven performances, resulting in queues for returns and standing tickets. McDermott’s production and ENO’s terrific cast deserve repeated success.


*****