One of the strangest manifestations of Western culture’s fascination with Ancient Egypt is Philip Glass’s 1984 opera Akhnaten. Its subject – sort of – is the pharaoh who, in the 14th century BCE, forced his subjects to abandon their multiple gods in favour of one, Aten, of which, surprise, surprise, he was the earthly representative.
The opera doesn’t exactly invite the audience in, as it’s sung in a variety of mostly biblical and pre-biblical languages, with no translations provided, but with a cumbersome English narration that offers little enlightenment. Yet in Phelim McDermott’s English National Opera production, first seen in 2016, Akhnaten becomes an eccentric kind of performance art, an ever-changing sequence of stage pictures, simultaneously gaudy and glamorous, mysterious and nonsensical.
They have a hallucinatory quality that matches the giddying undulations and shifting pulses of Glass’s music, expertly shaped by conductor Karen Kamensek. The designs (sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Bruno Poet) create their own world, less Ancient Egypt, perhaps, more Planet Zog: this is not a documentary opera, although there are visual references to Akhnaten’s supposed hermaphroditism.
It opens with the death of Akhnaten’s father, followed by Akhnaten’s coronation (he’s carried in naked: I hope we’ll see no such scene in our own imminent coronation). We meet the new pharaoh’s mother, Queen Tye, and his wife, Nefertiti; then things fall apart, gradually. Akhnaten’s son – none other than Tutankhamun – takes on his father’s role and then, in a somewhat superfluous coda, we find ourselves in the modern world. Plot details matter less, though, than the combination of music and stage spectacle, including jugglers, whose activities help the action through the more sedate passages: repeated use of slo-mo movement creates a sense of arcane ritual that is somewhat overdone.
Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanza has the slightly disdainful charisma to carry the title role even if his falsetto has a tough edge to it. Vocally he’s well-matched, sometimes outshone by the lustrous tones of Chrystal E Williams’ as Nefertiti and the brighter timbre of Haegee Lee’s Queen Tye. The imposing figure of Zachary James clearly enjoys wrapping his sonorous voice around the “May the force be with you” narration:is it meant to be helpful, or is it simply another enigma? The ENO chorus, meanwhile, is on blistering form.
The whole show is a reminder of the kind of bold production that ENO at its best is capable of delivering. If the company has a future at the Coliseum, it would be wonderful to see what it could do with the first and most enigmatic of Glass’s early, “portrait” operas, Einstein on the Beach. Just a dream? Let’s hope not.
London Coliseum, to April 5; eno.org