Akhnaten, English National Opera, London Coliseum, February 2019

Egypt, eighteenth dynasty: this starts with the laying to rest of Amenhotep III, and ends with his grandson Tutankhamun receiving the regalia of office before stepping into his inheritance.

Akhnaten and jugglers, all images ENO/ Jane Hobson

In the meantime, Tutankhamun’s father Amenhotep IV temporarily overturned the Egyptian religion with his monotheistic cult of the Aten (the sun disc), which he personally sanctified by changing his name to Akhn-aten. This honoured the Aten rather than the pantheon headed by Amun-Ra, discombobulating the priesthood. But it was more than just a religious revolution. Akhnaten also founded a new capital city Akhetaten (horizon of the Aten), which features prominently in the opera. Excavations at its ruins in El Amarna revealed of a trove of letters written in Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia, showing 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.

Nefertiti and Akhnaten

Little wonder then that Philip Glass saw Akhnaten as a great iconoclast, and this is the final opera in his trilogy on men who changed history — Einstein, Gandhi, Akhnaten. Opera it may be, but this is also a meditation on the distant past, presided over by The Scribe, a spoken role brilliantly performed by Zachary James. His powerful voice, diction and commanding stage presence, helped by being a head taller than everyone else, provided a stabilising factor throughout, only revealing emotion in Act III as he reads from the Amarna letters, “I have written repeatedly for troops, but they were not given … If there are no troops this year, let the king send his officer to fetch me and his brothers, that we may die with our lord, the king … but there has not come to us a word — no, not one”. Welcoming the new ruler who takes over from Akhnaten he recites words taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and finally assumes the role of tour guide, visiting the ruins at El Amarna.

The Scribe above, Nefertiti, Akhnaten, Tye

The excellent chorus sings in Ancient Egyptian, as do the king (beautifully sung by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo), his wife Nefertiti (Katie Stevenson) and mother Queen Tye (Rebecca Bottone), with Akkadian and even Hebrew heard at times. In this remarkable work the composer’s mesmeric, rhythmically pulsing music, very well conducted by Karen Kamensek, brings Ancient Egypt of the 14th century BC to life, and Phelim McDermott’s production captures its magnificence with glorious costumes by Kevin Pollard. The deliberately slow movements give an air of regal authority to what was a highly conservative civilisation, with jugglers adding a lighter touch in keeping with the times.

The original staging of this production in 2016 has been slightly modified, but the androgynous appearance of Akhnaten, with he and Nefertiti two sides of the same coin, continues to inform this presentation of an extraordinary seventeen-year period in Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty.

Continues on various dates until March 7 — details here.

Leave a Comment