Having had a very stressful time at work over the last few days I decided on the spur of the moment to treat myself to a night at the Opera. The hottest tickets in London right now are for English National Opera’s new production of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, but I managed to get one for Thursday night’s performance. I’m so glad I did, as it really lived up to the the reviews.
The Opera Akhnaten, which had its world premiere in 1983, is based on a real historical figure, Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt over 3300 years ago. Act I begins with the funeral rites of his father Amenhotep III, his son’s installation as Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and the beginning of his 17-year reign alongside his wife Nefertiti.
Roughly five years into his rule, however, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and set up a new, monotheistic religion, in which the Aten (the disk of the Sun) represented the supreme divine influence. Not content with that, he decided to up sticks from the city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) and found a new city called Amarna in the desert. Act II is set in the Amarna period. It seems that, although Akhnaten had revolutionary ideas about religion, the costs of establishing this new way of life, and the resentment it caused among advocates of the old order, put strain on the kingdom of Egypt. In Act III we find Akhnaten and his family in a state of total detachment from the reality of the disintegration of his empire. Ailing and beset by hostile forces, Akhnaten eventually dies.
After Akhnaten’s death the Amarna project was abandoned, as was the new religion, and the 18th Dynasty resumed with the enthronment of Akhnaten’s son, a young boy by the name of Tutankhamun. Very little remains of the City of Amarna and there seems to have been a systematic attempt to eradicate Akhnaten from historical memory. One suspects that the priests of the old religion played a not inconsiderable role in these developments.
But Glass’s Akhnaten is more of a reflection or meditation on this extraordinary period than an attempt to depict it via a traditional historical narrative. His minimalist score also challenges the conventions of grand opera. The music develops only incrementally and the actors move in a correspondingly stylised fashion. Each act consists of a set of dreamlike tableaux mixing up the archaeological elements of the story with references to the modern world. In the first Act, for example, the funerary rites of Amenhotep IV involve characters in both ancient and modern dress to emphasize that death has been, and remains, a mystery for all cultures and civilisations.
It’s obviously an enormous challenge to bring such a work to the stage, but this production (developed in conjunction with the theatre company Improbable) rose to that challenge with great imagination. To counter the sense of stasis generated by the music, for example, there was a liberal influsion of brilliantly executed and extremely kinetic juggling. I knew there was going to be juggling before the performance and had worried that it might be distracting, or even just a gimmick. In fact I think the juggling worked extremely well not only in the context of the opera but also in the context of history; some of the earliest depictions of juggling are from ancient Egypt. The costumes and lighting add even more to the spectacular visual experience.
I don’t like all of Philip Glass’s music but I do think that Akhnaten is a masterpiece of minimalism. It’s full of subtle and interesting ideas but also extremely accessible, and it creates a strange hypnotic atmosphere which goes perfectly with this staging. The orchestra played the music well, though I felt the brass section could have played with a bit more “bite”, especially in the first Act. The ENO chorus was in excellent voice, as were all the principals: soprano Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye (Akhnaten’s mother) and mezzo Emma Carrington as Nefertiti (Akhnaten’s wife) both sang extremely their demanding parts with great poise.
But I have to make special mention of Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten. He makes his first appearance on stage in Act I completely naked, walking slowly as if in a trance across a gallery and down the stairs in centre stage, and is then dressed in the garb of a Pharoah. His appearance then – slim, athletic, definitely masculine, and I have to say not inconsiderably sexy – contrasts with his increasingly androgynous appearance later on. But it is his stage presence and the truly remarkable quality of his singing that I will remember.
Akhnaten attempts to commune with the Aten. Picture credit: Guardian
Despite all I have written about the juggling and other aspects of the staging, for me the most powerful scene of the Opera is the last scene of Act II which is effective primarily for its simplicity. Here Akhnaten sings a longish aria in the form of Hymn to the Aten, which is based on an ancient text but bearing striking resemblance to Psalm 104 (a point underlined when the chorus sings Psalm 104, in Biblical Hebrew, offstage afterwards).This is the only part of the text sung in English; the rest is in a mixture of Aramaic, Akkadian and Hebrew. Constanzo’s rendition of the Hymn was stunningly beautiful, the clarity of his voice giving it a childlike sense of wonder. Akhnaten then walks slowly up a staircase in front of a representation of the Aten (above), then turns towards it and reaches out with both arms in an attempt to touch it, but he can’t reach it. He turns to face the audience, a desolate expression on his face, and the curtain falls on Act II.
That moment is so poignant because it spells out the universal nature of Akhnaten’s tragedy. His downfall seems inevitable from that point. He tries, as we all do in one way or another, and at some time or another, to commune with something beyond human existence. Inevitably, he fails, and his obsession costs him not only his kingdom, but also his life.