The visually-striking performance, directed by Phelim McDermott and conducted by Karen Kamensek, has opened at The Coliseum.
On the surface, Akhnaten may sound a hard sell – it’s three hours of opera, the majority of which is not sung in English and there is no translation. Given that rather daunting prospect, it’s a remarkably accessible piece; it’s broken down into three easily-digestible acts of approximately 45 minutes, with two intervals, while the key elements of the story – which is very simple – are narrated in English.
This forms part of Philip Glass’ trilogy of ‘portrait’ operas, which focus on the lives of great historical figures in the fields of religion (Akhnaten), science (Einstein) and politics (Gandhi). Akhnaten recounts the life of a radical pharaoh, remembered for his attempt to abandon traditional Egyptian polytheism and unite his people to worship just one god – the sun (the Aten). To enforce this way of thinking, he closed the temples of the old gods and created a new Egyptian capital, Akhetaten.
This rendition is based on the 2016 revival which won an Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production and it’s not difficult to see why – Akhnaten looks absolutely stunning. The creative team – set designer Tom Pye, costume designer Kevin Pollard and lighting designer Bruno Poet – has created one of the most visually-striking productions we’ve had the pleasure of seeing. The performance is light on plot, but an entire world is created on the stage through a series of eye-catching tableaux; there are moments of great beauty in the deliberate slowness of the rituals.
The Gandini Juggling Company join the singers on stage numerous times throughout the production. They add another layer to the visual fabric, and their perpetual movement correlates nicely with the repetition in Glass’ score. We felt they were overused to an extent, with the trickery becoming less impressive each time, but their contributions provided a necessary contrast to the otherwise glacial pace of the on-stage movement.
Of course, as expected from the ENO, the quality of the music is superb throughout. Each of the soloists is in fine form, the chorus sounds superb, and Karen Kamensek propels the evening’s proceedings forward with a violin-free orchestra from the pit.
Akhnaten is an impressive piece; surprisingly accessible, it’s a visually-striking revival which looks and sounds sublime throughout. Mesmerising.
Gay Times gives Akhnaten – ★★★★☆
More information can be found here.