Thursday, February 21, 2019

Opera review: Akhnaten – one of the best things ENO has done for ages | Theatre | Entertainment |

Opera review: Akhnaten – one of the best things ENO has done for ages

4 / 5 stars
Akhnaten – one of the best things ENO has done for ages

Under normal circumstances, I feel that one should not have to read the programme in order to understand the story of an opera. Even if you cannot understand the language it is being sung in, the surtitles should tell you all you need to know. But "normal" is not a word one would ever apply to Philip Glass and even for him, Akhnaten is decidedly out of the ordinary.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as                Akhnaten

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten (Image: Jane Hobson)

First, it is sung in a mixture of ancient Egyptian and Hebrew, with some English thrown in here and there.

Second, it does not really have a plot but contents itself with presenting a series of scenes from the life of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, and thirdly, the staging by director Phelim McDermott is dominated by a troupe of jugglers.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, Akhnaten seems to undergo a sex change halfway through.

It is not easy to judge a production such as this as it is so unlike anything else, but I found it totally riveting, even if I couldn't make out what was going on.

Incorporating the Gandini Juggling Company into the production was a stroke of genius that added a new dimension to Glass's music.

The excuse for juggling, if one is needed, is a wall painting featuring jugglers that has been discovered in an Egyptian tomb, and the effect is to amplify the mesmerising quality of Glass's music.

Anthony Roth Costanzo and                the Gandini jugglers

Anthony Roth Costanzo and the Gandini jugglers (Image: Jane Hobson)

The first time I went to an opera by Philip Glass, my initial impression was that it was the most repetitive, boring, pretentious composition I had ever heard.

His music has three times been nominated for Academy Awards, but film music provides a background for the action and ought not to dominate.

Operas are different and it took me some time to appreciate his minimalist approach.

With just a few notes repeated incessantly but with a strong and subtly changing rhythm, it is strangely hypnotic.

And when we have the Gandini Company on stage juggling in time to the music, the effect is tremendous.

The opera begins with the ritual of the funeral of Amenhotep III, leaving Egypt to be ruled by his young son, Amenhotep IV who promptly changes his name to Akhnaten.

The new Pharaoh marries Nefertiti and promptly declares that Egypt will cease its polytheistic ways and worship only the Sun God. 

He also declares that a new city will be built as the centre of the new religion.

The priests urge everyone to revolt, Akhnaten is killed (the jugglers give up their sun-like balls, which have been growing ever larger, and start juggling clubs for the violent scenes) and is succeeded by Tutankhamun, who brings back the old religion.

The American counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is superb in the title role, both before and after his transformation into a woman.

Fortunately, Nefertiti seemed very broad-minded about this, but Costanzo shared the triumph of the opening night with Karen Kamensek who conducted the orchestra faultlessly to show just how effective Glass's music can be - especially when accompanied by rhythmic juggling.

As an operatic experience, Akhnaten is quite extraordinary, but I can understand how some people might hate it.

In deference to them, I have given it only four stars, though personally, I think it is one of the best things ENO has done in recent years.

• Box Office: 020 7845 9300 or (various dates until March 7)

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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