Review: If You See One Philip Glass Opera, Make It This One

Akhnaten, London Coliseum ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 20 months ago
Review: If You See One Philip Glass Opera, Make It This One Akhnaten, London Coliseum 4
Philip Glass's Akhnaten appears in London for the first time in nearly thirty years © ENO / Richard Hubert Smith
Philip Glass's Akhnaten appears in London for the first time in nearly thirty years © ENO / Richard Hubert Smith

Composer Philip Glass, who wrote the soundtrack to The Hours, is recognised as one of the leading proponents of minimalism in the world today. He has written over twenty-five operas, and three of these form a trilogy that focus on pivotal figures in the fields of science, politics and religion respectively. Einstein on the Beach premiered in 1976, Satyagraha (about Mahatma Gandhi) followed in 1980, and the triptych was completed four years later with Akhnaten. This final opera appeared at English National Opera in 1985 and 1987, and now comes to the Coliseum following a thirty-year absence in a new production from Improbable director Phelim McDermott.

Glass’s operas can move some people to an almost hypnotic degree and leave others feeling quite cold. While there is no guarantee as to which state any individual will fall into, anyone who is currently wavering might do well to hit the Coliseum as there can surely be no better time to try his work. This is because the music in Akhnaten is more varied and accessible than in either Einstein on the Beach or Satyagraha, this production is very engaging and the singing is of a notably high standard.

The opera explores the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who renamed himself Akhnaten as he changed Egypt’s entire religion to worship the sun god, Aten. Although the story is told chronologically, the piece is more meditative than plot driven and different sections are presented in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew as well as English. This variety reflects the diversity of the texts, which include the Egyptian Book of the Dead, that are presented, but the programme, which includes full translations and synopsis, explains everything clearly.  

The opera is sumptuously presented through Tom Pye’s sets with activity sometimes occurring simultaneously on three levels. Occasionally, this can lead to visual overload, but more often there is a refinement to the effects that, when combined with the obvious attention to detail, create some arresting images. Actors frequently juggle with their actions complementing the minimalist music well, and the balls in themselves have significance. A huge sphere represents the sun but the smaller ones tossed in front of it could also be atoms, thus contrasting ancient and modern understanding concerning the basis of life.

Synergies between the past and present are also highlighted by seeing Kevin Pollard’s costumes cross eras. In fact, allusions to excavations coupled with the interest we show in Akhnaten today reveal how in a sense his aim to achieve immortality was realised. Conversely, the opera also reveals how short-lived this pharaoh’s dream was. On his death, the old religion was restored (under Tutankhamun) and the city he founded abandoned. In fact, we see a modern day lecturer boring his students by pointing out that everything from the city is now either missing, badly damaged or too far out to be worth the trek to see.

Karen Kamensek conducts superbly, while the singing is of an exceptionally high standard. Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten has a countertenor voice of such metallic brilliance and precision that his sound seems otherworldly, as befitting the god-like character he is portraying. His performance of Act Two’s Hymn to the Sun is sensational, while no less engaging is his duet with Emma Carrington’s Nefertiti. His countertenor works very well with her mezzo-soprano and the pair bring tension to the air as their long trailing robes are twisted around each other. The ENO chorus also contribute some excellent singing including in several passages where their voices are heard from offstage.

Until 18 March (seven performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES. For tickets (£12-£125) visit the English National Opera website. Londonist saw this opera on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 09 March 2016