Philip Glass has always hoped his three portrait operas would be performed within the space of a week. Thirty years after he wrote Akhnaten, a portrait of an Egyptian pharaoh from the fourteenth century BC, his dream has become reality. State Opera of South Australia has teamed up with Leigh Warren Dancers to taken on the challenge of Philip Glass’s trilogy of biographical operas, beginning with Akhnaten.

Akhnaten © Darren Williams Photography
Akhnaten
© Darren Williams Photography

Centuries before Akhnaten was born Abraham answered a call of the One God and became the father in faith of the three great monotheistic religions in our world – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He visited Egypt where he had a run-in with the pharaoh – but concerning his wife rather than his God. Maybe he left a legacy lingering of the hankering for worship of one god which Akhnaten revived when he came to the throne, for he did, for a short time, bring into Egyptian culture a monotheistic worship of the sun god. This is what this opera is about. It is celebrated magnificently in this production where everything comes together brilliantly.

The cast selection is amazing. They complement each other in voice and movement, surrounded by clever lighting and insightful set design.

Tobias Cole as Akhnaten, the sun-god pharaoh, was outstanding, perhaps the sweetest, unforced, natural counter-tenor I have heard. His “Hymn to the Sun” was an inspired delight. Matching his voice with Cherie Boogaart as Nefertiti produced the most moving moment of the opera – a sensuous and sensual, intimate and majestic love poem that celebrated both their love for each other and the high point of their reign. It was powerfully compelling, as they sang to each other while tangoing across the stage. She has a rich mezzo-soprano voice which matches the counter tenor of Cole. Whether intentional or not, it becomes another expression of the oneness they have. The earlier trio between these two and Queen Tye (Deborah Caddy) inspired. Caddy’s soprano is rich. As she sang, first with Cole (Queen Tye was Akhnaten’s mother) they complement each other beautifully, then joined by Boogaart the trio soars into a brilliant blend of vocal sound . Another great trio were Andrew Turner, Robert England and Adam Goodburn (singing Horemhab, Aye and High Priest Amon) who combined well together. They stood on glass tables, their voices clear, their presence commanding, their singing uplifting. Adam Goodburn doubled as the Scribe, whose diction was always clear and delivered with feeling.

Tobias Cole © Darren Williams Photography
Tobias Cole
© Darren Williams Photography
The range and timbre of the large chorus created rich resonance whenever they sung–perhaps best displayed in the expression of grief and mourning of the priests as they saw their temple values being destroyed to be replaced by the sun-god Aten – even the fringed tassels of their white gowns trembled.

A large inverted stone coloured pyramid shape at the rear of the stage dominated Mary Moore’s design. Cleverly, this split apart, replaced by a pyramid of blue solar panels while Akhnaten’s sun-god religion was imposed on Egypt, symbolised by he and Nefertiti ripping up sacred texts and strewing them across the stage. Once he was overthrown, the original stone reformed and blocked out any sign of the sun.

The Leigh Warren Dancers were on stage non-stop, and for the most part contributed to the atmosphere and enhanced the richness of the opera. It was very much an integration of dance and music. Dancers and singers always moved with a confident precision and grace in complex choreography, although audience comments ranged from ‘Leigh Warren is an absolute genius’ to ‘They were an abomination’.

The Adelaide Art Orchestra were enthralling, playing brilliantly under the baton of Timothy Sexton who infused them with life. It is such a captivating score – with such simple sounding complexity. It’s the sort of music that gets you to trust it and all of a sudden jogs and startles, throwing in a googly as an unexpected surprise. The trumpeter (I think Robin Finlay) stood out, always there to herald Akhnaten, and often to accompany him. Sexton has emphasised the way Philip Glass layers the music, woodwinds on strings, then a layer of trumpets, tubas, and so on, and blocks of sound being shifted around like bricks in a wall.

This performance gave high level excitement and enjoyment throughout – utterly involving and engrossing. It ended with a calming change of pace. The Epilogue produced Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye in glass topped sarcophagi, and the scribe reverently taking an ankh, which had featured throughout the opera, and placing it on a pedestal in the centre of the stage as reverently as a bishop would place a monstrance on the altar of a cathedral, and allowing us a few moments of gentle meditation as the opera reached its conclusion.

This was an all-embracing, deep and awesome experience that I will savour for decades to come.