From its first opening ripples of sound, Philip Glass’s Akhnaten draws you into a different world. Glass’s music is the very definition of minimalist and its changing tones and rhythms demand an unusual level of concentration in the audience – you don’t want to miss a single nuance. You can almost feel time slow down.
And so it is on the stage. The principal characters move in slow motion. There are tableaux and static poses, often framed in boxes of light. There are rows of seated ancient Egyptian gods. But then there are the jugglers.
This is where the minimalism of the music does not transfer to the action on the stage. ENO has joined with the Improbable Theatre Company and Gandini Juggling to create a production of quite staggering spectacle, a perfect counterpoint to the hypnotic music. There may be purists who believe Glass’s music should be matched by an austere stage. I am not one of them. For one thing, this is a sumptuously beautiful production, directed by Improbable’s Phelim McDermott.
It is full of colour, all gloriously lit by Bruno Poet. Costumes embrace the ancient Egyptian, the furs, pearls and peacock feather fans of the early 1900s and nakedness. As Akhnaten, Anthony Roth Costanzo is unwrapped on stage and makes the slowest of naked progresses down steps before he is dressed in a crinoline and robe that – so bejewelled and gilded is it – it would have done Elizabeth I proud.
Akhnaten was a 15th century BC Pharaoh who, much against the prevailing ideas of the day, introduced monotheism – the worship of just one god, the sun, Aten – rather than the polytheism practised at the time. There is a suggestion that this was an idea that found its way into the early Hebrew faith and thus continued to this day. Either way, Glass was immediately drawn to Akhnaten as a figure who overturned the world order with an idea – this opera is the last of a trilogy, following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (his opera about Gandhi).
It opens with the corpse of Akhnaten’s father being treated to its funerary rites, his heart weighed on giant scales against a feather to be assured of his easy progress into the afterlife. The stage is multi-layered – white-coated surgeons remove the old pharaoh’s organs on the stage; the magnificent ENO chorus sing their hearts out in the middle; and on the top – and this is a stroke of genius – a row of gods with the heads of bulls and jackals are seated in profile until they start to juggle.
Apparently, there is plenty of evidence that the Egyptians liked jugglers – they are depicted, for instance, on the walls of tombs. And these jugglers are not only a delight to watch, they perform a visual descant to the music, as well as telling the story of Akhnaten’s rise and fall – quite literally, when everything thuds to the ground when the old religion is resurgent and the pharaoh is overthrown.
The team of McDermott and designers Tom Pye and Kevin Pollard has produced some breath-taking moments. There are giant suns, an enormous wheel rolls across the stage propelled by the tread of the figures inside it, an exquisite love duet between Akhnaten and his queen, Nefertiti, fills the stage with the scarlet of their trailing robes. The choreography by Sean Gandini is as thrilling for the slo-mo singers as it is for his own jugglers.
As Akhnaten, the American countertenor, Costanzo, is a revelation with his ethereal voice and balletic poise. Chrystal E Williams is a luscious Nefertiti and, as Akhnaten’s mother, Haegee Lee is as clear voiced as she is clear eyed about the coming storm.
Akhnaten is sung mostly in Egyptian with some Hebrew and spoken commentary in English. The music is minimalist. Its setting is some 3500 years ago and its hero an almost forgotten, comparatively short-lived ruler. It doesn’t sound like a hot ticket, right? You couldn’t be more wrong. Mesmerising and magnificent – it’s not to be missed.
Akhnaten is currently running at the ENO, with performances on 23, 24, 29, 30 March and 1 and 5 April. For more information, and for bookings, please visit www.eno.org.
Photos by Belinda Jiao