As Glass read Oedipus and Akhnaten about the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who ruled Egypt in 1351-1334 BC, he knew he had found his final hero to his operatic trilogy of ‘portrait operas’ he had been formulating, dedicated to the great thinkers of this world. By then, Glass had composed two: Einstein on the beach (on Albert Einstein) in 1976, and Satyagraha, dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi in 1980.
Why – you may ask – would Philip Glass settle upon Akhnaten as his hero? In fifteenth-century BC Egypt, the pharaoh introduced a radical new state religion of sun-worship which supplanted the other Egyptian deities. Though Akhnaten reigned for seventeen years – short in pharaoh terms (they ruled for life), his monotheist adoration of one God: Aten, did not make him popular with his people.
Scholars in the twentieth century saw a link between Akhnaten’s ideas on monotheism with the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West.
This unusual, in retrospect, forward-thinking pharaoh, made Akhnaten an exciting intellectual prospect for Glass. Akhnaten captured the composer’s imagination and his opera was born.
Akhnaten the opera got its first airing way back in 1984. At first glance it might have seemed traditional in concept, linking Glass with the old seria opera tradition of the eighteenth century when the operas were replete with kings, gods and heroes.
Glass no doubt saw the visual possibilities of such an enterprise – it would be an excuse to use flamboyant gold costumes and headwear, stylish sets, and certainly English National Opera’s revival of Glass’s Akhnaten at the Coliseum this week, is every bit as opulent as you would imagine it to be.
And let’s be clear on this, this opera may be seria in concept but not in execution – everything in this production is avant-garde and still feels startlingly original.
Director, Phelim McDermott, and his set, lighting designers, costumiers and chorographical team all exercised their craft to the highest order so that the singers, the chorus and skills ensemble Improbable (the extraordinary juggling artists) all moved in tandem. Choreographer, Sean Gandini, ensured that each step, each movement was orchestrated and related to the opera’s whole. All people on stage were in thrall to the pharaoh Akhnaten and to his deity – the sun Aten. Nothing was excluded – the costumes even, were designed for movement and convey deep reverence and emotion.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the love duet between Akhnaten and Nerfititi, brilliantly interpreted by Anthony Roth Costanzo and Chrystal E.Williams. Each singer, clothed in identical red diaphanous robes with long trains, stepped slowly towards each other, until face to face and when nothing separated them, they seem to envelop each other, merge into each other, until their mouth’s fused in a passionate kiss.
The intimacy of the love scene was further enhanced with the use of voice. Costanzo’s countertenor and Williams’s mezzo soprano were similar in pitch and created a sensual frottage. The vocal textures differed however, Williams’s husky alto underpinned Costanzo’s aerial soprano beautifully.
The eroticism was highly charged. Both singers’ revealed their nudity beneath their transparent robes. Glass had been fascinated by stories of Akhnaten being born intersexual and in this opera he has breasts – and is proud of them.
Musically there were astonishing moments of release where Glass’s repetitive rhythms and close tonal patterns fanned out briefly into unforgettable rising melodies of astonishing beauty. During Akhnaten’s Hymn to the Sun –the interplay between Contanzo’s countertenor and trumpet and woodwind was gorgeous. When Contanzo voice rose over the orchestral I heard Mozart and I was in heaven.
Highly recommended – a rich, sensory experience.
Try your luck with the box office which is showing Sold Out on the website and see Akhnaten before it comes off April 5th – highly recommended.
Performances of Akhnaten remaining : March 23,24,29,30 & April 5th at 19.30. April 1 at 18.30. The relaxed performance is on Tuesday 4th April at 14.30. Co-production with LA Opera. A collaboration with Improbable.