Akhnaten by the ENO is a brilliantly inventive collision of art forms that hovers between the sublime and the ridiculous

Simon Thomson
Anthony Roth Costanzo playing Pharaoh Akhnaten

Royal Opera House | ★★★★

More high art burlesque than opera, this spectacular new production of Akhnaten hovers somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous, and often it’s hard to tell where. There hasn’t been a full production in the UK for almost three decades and a heady sense of anticipation means that Akhnaten is already the highest-selling contemporary opera ever performed by the ENO.

Premiered in 1984, composer Philip Glass’ Akhnaten forms part of a loose trilogy of biographical operas. The other two – Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (about Gandhi) – focus on characters who fundamentally changed the fields of science and politics respectively. Akhnaten is the story of the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who ruled Egypt in the 14th century BC; husband of the more famous Nefertiti and father of the boy king Tutankhamun. Taking on the mantel of Akhnaten, he fundamentally changed religion by introducing one of the first recorded monotheistic faiths.

Director Phelim McDermott, of Improbable, offers up a bizarre, extravagant, genderqueer, esoteric experience, that defies easy description. Imagine Peter Greenaway presents Cirque du Soleil, or a Lady Gaga stage musical adaptation of David Lynch’s Dune, and you’ll be in the right ballpark. On the one hand it’s a brilliantly inventive collision of myriad art forms that results in a unique and fascinating theatrical event, far more opulent and engaging than McDermott’s 2007 ENO production of Satyagraha. On the other, it’s so recondite, so aestheticised, so insanely artsy that it teeters on the edge of self-parody.

The lyrics are few and drawn from period texts, such as The Book of the Dead. They are sung mostly in Egyptian or Hebrew (or a mathematically structured stream of vowels). The music is in Glass’ characteristic minimalist style (lots of arpeggios and repetitive phrases), and throughout the opera’s almost three-hour run-time, the effect vacillates between mesmeric and soporific. At its best, however, especially when he unleashes the brass section, it verges on the transcendental.

There are remarkable costumes and sets replete with arcane symbolism. There are animal-headed gods. There is upside down, full frontal nudity, and a rat king of princesses. But the signature peculiarity, rooted in the entertainments of the ancient Egyptian royal court, is a troupe of juggling mummies whose prowess with balls and clubs simultaneously complements and mocks the leaps and repetitions of the score.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is fearless and ethereal in his performance as the heretical pharaoh, and though some may take issue with a slight reediness in his voice, it fits well with the character he portrays. Most of the context is provided by the scribe, played by Zachary James, who speaks in English, with stentorian delivery and remarkable physical presence. His appearance as a history professor, nearing the end of the third act, gives the whole piece an elegiac feel, and calls to mind Shelley’s Ozymandias.

For someone wandering in from the street, this very much a Marmite proposition to be approached with care or even avoided altogether. But for the fans, this production will make them feel like they’ve died and gone to the underworld.

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