Three Hour-Long Opera Akhenaten Is A Class Act

Akhnaten, ENO ★★★★☆

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Three Hour-Long Opera Akhenaten Is A Class Act Akhnaten, ENO 4
Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Who’s up for a three-hour long opera about the relatively unknown pharaoh Akhenaten? With most of the singing in ancient Egyptian? With no surtitles? Based on music by minimalist composer Phillip Glass? And with jugglers? Jugglers? Frankly, this has greater potential to be a royal car crash than Prince Phillip popping out for a pint of milk.

That might be a cheap gag but this production is anything but. Director Phelim McDermott’s interpretation of Glass’s work was rightly lauded on its first outing in 2016. This latest resurrection, led once more by the brilliant Anthony Roth Costanzo as the wise king, is still a gorgeous and imaginative visual feat that paints cinematic tableaux on the London Coliseum stage.

The set design is on an epic scale, the costumes are filled with intricate details and McDermott creates ultra-intense dramatic set pieces that suck you in hook, line and sinker. Trust us: your eyeballs will be thanking you for days.

Glass’ music is looping and repetitive and looping and repetitive and looping and very, very mesmerising as he takes us through this story of failed ambition and tragic love. Perhaps stock up on the energy drinks because you will need to be as woke as a Guardian reader to fully appreciate the majesty of his Akhnaten.

McDermott’s use of jugglers here is different, but different doesn’t always mean good. He often deploys them to entertaining effect, for example in a battle episode which sees clubs flying through the air. When the director slows down the action to “bullet time” levels, the jugglers help to expand on and highlight the implicit narrative elements but too often distract from, rather than enhance, the whole scene. Also, his use of nudity, while not eliciting any boos, add little of consequence to either the political or personal thrust of the plot.

This production has few real flaws with superb performances all over the park on and off stage. The most significant let-down comes from the pit where Glass’s music comes out feeling at times subdued or underplayed; the opening number has the potential to be far more uplifting than is heard here.

Akhnaten at ENO has 6 performances left: 15, 21, 23, 28 February and 7 March at 7.30pm and 2 March at 6.30pm. 500 tickets for £20 or less are available for each performance. Tickets start from £12 (plus booking fee of 2.25; no booking fee in person).

Last Updated 14 February 2019