The house lights dim, the audience settles, music begins to build ominously in the pit. ‘Opened are the double doors of the horizon/Unlocked are its bolts’, the narrator intones. Welcome to 18th Dynasty Egypt as envisaged by American minimalist composer Philip Glass.
You don’t have to be a fully paid-up Glass fan to enjoy the journey, but it probably helps. In my case, the connection is through David Bowie, Brian Eno, ambient music and more recently trance. As well as, yes, the familiar soundtracks: Mishima, Notes on a Scandal, The Hours. Like Handel (another personal favourite), Glass’s work has a pleasingly austere quality, in the best sense of that word.
‘Akhnaten’ is the last of Glass’s ‘portrait’ trilogy, following ‘Einstein on the Beach’ and ‘Satyagraha’, and it’s generally thought to be the ‘easiest’ of the three. There are few of the experimental touches that you find in ‘Einstein’, for example: no ‘Knee plays’, no nonsense tales, no ‘Mr. Bojangles’ or ‘baggy pants’, and definitely no yelping or whooping. There’s a conventional three-act format and even a plot of sorts. All of which may explain why it has greater popular appeal than the other two operas.
ENO has considerable form with Glass, having staged the UK premiere of Akhnaten in 1985. By all accounts that was a pared-down affair, tons of sand standing in for the pharaoh’s failed desert empire. Phelim McDermott’s production, back after a three year hiatus, is the complete antithesis, a vast baroque phantasmagoria of colour and spectacle which concentrates on the hieratic and ritualistic elements of the story. A ‘skills ensemble’ of jugglers, perfectly choreographed to Glass’s music, adds further visual interest, with some (male) nudity thrown into the mix as well.
There are at least two outstanding performances, both from Americans returning to ENO from the original 2016 run. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, in the title role, brings an eerie, other-worldly quality to his singing of the (mostly) ancient Egyptian texts; he even looks uncannily like Aknhaten, if contemporary statuary is anything to go by. Karen Kamensek, a seasoned Glass hand, conducts with steely discipline and with an attention to detail that this sort of music demands if it’s going to work.
There are few quibbles. As many critics have pointed out, the secondary characters – Queen Tye, Nefertiti, the High Priest of Amon – tend to disappear into the chorus. Conversely, a little of Glass’s narrator (‘the Scribe’) goes a long way, in my opinion. McDermott’s jugglers are also made to carry rather too much – literally – and in any case, you’re always expecting them to drop something, although naturally they don’t. None of this seemed to bother the Coliseum audience, though, which lapped it up all the way to the last curtain call. This is opera without pain.
All production images ©Jane Hobson