Akhnaten, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, March 2016Posted on 5 March 2016
This final opera in Philip Glass’s trilogy on men who changed history — Einstein, Gandhi, Akhnaten — last seen here in 1987, well deserves Phelim McDermott’s spectacular new production.
Akhnaten may not be a household name like the other two, but this eighteenth dynasty Egyptian king who temporarily overturned the Egyptian religion with his monotheistic cult of the Aten (the sun disc) is a figure of huge historical importance. Son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tye, and father of Tutankhamun, he came to the throne as Amenhotep IV, later changing his name to Akhnaten honouring the Aten rather than the pantheon headed by Amun-Ra. He also founded a new capital city Akhetaten (horizon of the Aten), in whose ruins at El Amarna the 1887 discovery of a trove of letters written in Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia, shows Egypt reaching out to a rapidly changing world to renew its highly conservative civilisation. But it was not to last. The priests of Amun staged a counter-revolution and after a reign of seventeen years Akhnaten’s name was later obliterated from monuments.
The opera starts with the laying to rest of Amenhotep III and ends with the death and laying to rest of Akhnaten while his son Tutankhamun receives the regalia of office before stepping forward into his inheritance. The king is dead; long live the king. At the same time we see modern archaeologists, even a tour guide, examining the distant past of ancient history’s most exclusive and conservative State.
The opening scene emerges slowly, the principal gods of Egypt seen in silhouette before the immensely tall figure of the Scribe steps forward and intones, “Open are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts”. These words from the Egyptian Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts start us on a journey that passes through excerpts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, letters from the Amarna archive, the Hebrew Bible, and Egyptian tomb inscriptions including Tutankhamun’s.
The libretto, described by Glass’s collaborator on Egyptian history, Shalom Goldman as “singing archaeology”, along with the composer’s rhythmically pulsing, mesmeric music brings to life this ancient world from the 14th century BC, aided by McDermott’s production, which captures our imaginations with glorious costumes by Kevin Pollard, marvellous set designs by Tom Pye, and subtle lighting changes by Bruno Poet, particularly the remarkable counterpoint of colours in Act II.
And those jugglers. Wonderful. Ancient Egypt was a land where such things flourished along with conjuring tricks that the magicians of Egypt performed when up against Moses in the Biblical story of Exodus 7–11. Indeed the Moses story is from the same, if slightly later, period of Egyptian history.
Marvellous singing from Anthony Roth Costanzo in the counter-tenor role of Akhnaten, melding beautifully in various passages with Emma Carrington as his wife Nefertiti, and Rebecca Bottone as his mother Queen Tye. As the Scribe, Zachary James’s powerful voice, diction and commanding stage presence provided a firm grounding for the whole performance, along with excellent work from the chorus singing in various ancient tongues.
The absence of surtitles, rendered superfluous by the fine intonation of the English spoken text, was a blessing that allowed the audience to concentrate on this stunning production, with Glass’s hypnotic vocal and orchestral music very well conducted by Karen Kamensek.
Performances continue on various dates until March 18 — for details click here.