The house was packed and excitement palpable on opening night of Phelim McDermott’s new production of Philip Glass’s iconic Akhnaten – the first fully-staged UK performance since the eighties, when the work was new. The two previous instalments of the Portrait Trilogy to be staged in London, Satyagraha in 2007 (then 2010) and Einstein on the Beach in 2012, opened to rave reviews (including mine) and wide artistic acclaim, not to mention record-breaking commercial success for modern opera. (I refuse to describe music composed over 30 years ago as ‘contemporary’!)
The Improbable theatre company are known for the wildly complex creativity of their visual presentation, and have set themselves high standards to live up to in previous productions; nevertheless, they continue to meet them. Akhnaten utilises a compartmentalised staging on three vertical tiers, with various movable subdivisions in the horizontal and foreground/background planes, giving a three-dimensional array of stage space in which to play. Frequently, several scenes occur concurrently, for example, in Act I, fast repetitive movement on the top layer (a troupe of jugglers styled on Ancient Egyptian deities), glacially slow movement in the lower foreground (the funeral rites of Pharaoh Amenhotep III), and the mid-speed shufflings and shuntings of the unquiet common people in between. This is, in fact, a perfect visual analogue for Glass’s classical minimalist compositional style, with its monolithic layered structure of fast repetition of arpeggios and scale patterns with glacially slow harmonic or timbral change beneath. It also made it impossible to keep track of everything that was going on: you focus on one interesting part for a while, then suddenly realise a whole new set of characters have entered, possibly clambering around on a large rolling wheel in marbled leotards. Somewhat overwhelming (in a good way) in Act I, the simple lines and colours of Act II (again, corresponding to changes in the musical structure) allowed a period of calm before the destabilisations of Act III.
14th century BCE Pharaoh Akhnaten (née Amenhotep IV) seems to have been an interesting character, considered strange in his own time, and the victim of both posthumous smear campaigns and attempts at expungement from history. While little hard evidence is available, he is thought by some Egyptologists to have been female and disguised as a male in order to take the throne (not unknown in that period), or possibly intersex, as well as probably bisexual, and reputedly engaged in an incestuous relationship with his mother. This telling of the story was not going for the actually-a-woman interpretation, as Anthony Roth Costanza (Akhnaten) emerged naked and clearly externally male, although later costumes were designed as deliberately gender-ambiguous. The coronation robe, for example, brought to mind Elizabeth I – if she had worn it open down the front and accessorised with a double crown topped with a giant jellybean, that is. (Aside: I would be considerably more positively-disposed toward contemporary royalty if they were all bald genderqueer alien-looking beauties with more than a little of the David Bowie about them, and all coronation ceremonies included appearing naked then being flipped upside down by a cadre of shiny ambulant mummies into a large pair of pants.) Less positively, Akhnaten was also a religious zealot who, on ascending the throne, demanded all his people immediately switch to his new religion. The story (and yes, this opera does actually have a linear narrative) centres on this religious reformation to monotheistic sun-god worship. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to let on that the people of Egypt were not entirely impressed at the destruction of their temples and banning of their favoured polytheistic traditions, and it did not end well for Akhnaten.
It is apt that so far I have not mentioned the singing, as the title role neither sings nor speaks until some way into Act I, floating silently through his father’s funeral and his own coronation. When Costanzafinally opens his mouth, it is with a visceral, flexible countertenor that I initially thought too vibrato-laden and lacking the timbral stability I considered necessary for the music, but which subsequently settled (particularly in terms of blending with the always-accompanying trumpet) and grew on me swiftly to the point where I have difficulty imagining anyone better inhabiting the role. Two women form with him the central trio of characters. Mother Queen Tye was a soaring yet crisply-controlled Rebecca Bottone, while wife Nefertiti was sung with warm vibrancy by Emma Carrington, both of them with concentrated levels of intensity. The intermingling lines of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s Act II love duet were a particular musical highlight, as was their final trio. The secondary trio of male voices were also highly effective, and their sections provided a welcome change of sound whenever the physical, political world (in the form of James Cleverton’s military Horemhab,Clive Bayley’s adviser Aye, and Colin Judson’s priest of the old religion) intrudes on Akhnaten and family’s increasingly-insular spirituality. With most of the libretto in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, it fell to the Scribe (Zachary James) to narrate the events, spoken over musical underlay (a similar effect to the texts in Einstein). He did this in a declamatory, actorly manner, at the end rather impressively while carrying the dead Akhnaten cradled in his arms. (I am imagining a casting call specifying “must be able to deadlift countertenor and sustain for duration of monologue”.)
For an orchestra playing this type of score, the technical demands are considerable, and musically somewhat contradictory. Navigated and driven flawlessly by Karen Kamensek (currently MD of Hannover Staatstheater, and in her ENO debut), the musicians managed laser-cut robotic precision, yet with the necessary human warmth injected via timbre and sensitivity of dynamic phrasing. I was thinking of picking out individual wind soloists for compliment, but in fact they were all deserving. The ENO chorus were also on excellent vocal form, whether delivering polyrhythmic choral chanting while ominously hand-jiving with juggling balls and glowering at the out-of-touch royal family, or ethereal offstage harmonies floating up from the orchestra pit. They received one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night.
Lastly, of course, I must mention the balls. Balls, balls, flying everywhere (and I’m not referring to the Pharaoh’s). Not only is the preponderance of round objects appropriate for a piece of theatre on the subject of all-consuming worship of a spherical sky-god, but the earliest known archaeological records of ball juggling are from an 11th Dynasty Egyptian tomb painting. Normal-sized juggling balls were flung in delightfully precisely-patterned choreography by Sean Gandini’s company of dancing jugglers, larger bubble-like balls bounced around as the Atenist religion develops, and a huge glowing globe swelled to take up most of the stage for the stunning Hymn to the Sun. This was all highly entertaining, and worked well as an alternative visual iconography for the construction and deconstruction of the City of the Horizon of Aten.
What would I like to see in the future from ENO? I’d like to see the Portrait Trilogy of Einstein, Satyagraha and Akhnaten presented in London as a cycle on three consecutive nights (as the State Opera of South Australia did in 2014). Improbable? Twenty years ago we would have said that about a staged performance of any of the three individually (and particularly Einstein), but have been proved wrong with aplomb. Please make it happen.
[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia]