Akhnaten, Coliseum, London, review: Superb singing and breath-taking theatrical moments

Akhnaten celebrated the sun-disc, and that is what glows throughout this show in ever more amazing forms

Clive Bayley, Anthony Roth Costanzo, James Cleverton and Colin Judson in Akhnaten
Clive Bayley, Anthony Roth Costanzo, James Cleverton and Colin Judson in Akhnaten

Those of us who missed the first ENO production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten have had to wait thirty years for the second, but the wait has been worth it. Meanwhile we’ve seen the first two operas in his great minimalist trilogy – Einstein at the Barbican, and Satyagraha at ENO – but this new production, by Phelim McDermott and his Improbable company, brings the whole to a completion of unforgettable magnificence.

Glass views Einstein as the man of Science; Gandhi (the subject of Satyagraha) as the man of Politics; and Akhnaten – the Egyptian Pharaoh who tried to replace his countrymen’s multiple deities with one single universal deity, thus prefiguring the Judeo-Christian God - as the quintessential man of Religion. Glass was fired to create this opera on reading a scholarly book which argued that all the events in the fictional life of Oedipus had happened centuries before in the life of this Egyptian monarch. Glass isn’t bothered about the veracity of this claim: all that matters to him is that it makes perfect theatrical sense.

And how. In this production the Coliseum stage glows like a succession of Rothko paintings thanks to lighting by the aptly-named Bruno Poet, and to designs and costumes (by Tom Pye and Kevin Pollard respectively) whose opulent beauty offers a continuous feast for the eyes. This show takes its visual cues from the bas reliefs reflecting life in Akhnaten’s court, with the stylised rays of the sun being represented on stage in exactly the manner in which they beam down on the carved figures. Akhnaten celebrated the sun-disc, and that is what glows throughout this show in ever more amazing forms.

McDermott, meanwhile, has taken his leitmotif from an ancient fresco showing girls juggling with balls: thus do his ‘skills ensemble’ both worship their human deity and conjure up the rising sun. By the end of three hours this conceit may have worn a bit thin, but it’s executed with such faultless brilliance that one doesn’t mind.

All the movement is in slow motion, so that the story feels like a glacially-animated bas relief; this is perfectly in accord with the momentum of the music, which has its own glacial momentum, though it also has radiant warmth. Glass’s score may seem simple, but it’s actually very clever, with Baroque interpolations punctuating the minimalist figurations, and luminous shifts from minor to major.

With Karen Kamensek propelling events from the pit, the singing is superb, most notably by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo whose robing, enthronement, hermaphrodite sex-change, and death all become breath-taking theatrical moments. No praise too high for Emma Carrington’s luscious Nefertiti, Rebecca Bottone’s spooky Queen Tye, James Cleverton’s resounding General, and for the chorus, whose threatened strike on 18 March would unquestionably scupper the show.

It’s wise to read the programme beforehand, as the libretto – from the Egyptian Book of the Dead – is sung in Hebrew, and the plot is quite intricate. But who cares if with this staging the story doesn’t entirely come across? Just go with the wonderful flow.

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