English National Opera, London - 2019
Karen Kamensek, Phelim McDermott, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Rebecca Bottone, James Cleverton, Colin Judson, Zachary James, Katie Stevenson, Keel Watson, Charlotte Shaw, Hazel McBain, Rosie Lomas, Elizabeth Lynch, Martha Jones, Angharad Lyddon
The Coliseum, London - 2 March 2019
36 years after it was first performed, it's still difficult to place Philip Glass's Akhnaten alongside either traditional or contemporary opera. Where it fits in Glass's repertoire is easier to identify. Akhnaten (1983) is the third part of the composer's Portrait Trilogy of operas, following Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1980), three works still very much informed by Glass's experiments with minimalism or repetitive music with gradually changing parts. By Akhnaten we also see the composer move gradually away (with changing parts) from the rigid minimalism of his earlier works to incorporate more traditional forms and instrumentation, even if it still remains largely distinct from the classical idiom.
Traces of the philosophy behind the artistic experimentalism of the New York scene of the 70s still remain in Akhnaten, not least Glass's early work with theatre director Robert Wilson and dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. It's the overall concept or underlying philosophy behind the works in the Portrait Trilogy that are important and the influence that their central figures have over modern views on science (Einstein), politics (Gandhi) and religion (Akhnaten) are too expansive and intangible to be reductively made to fit a narrative.
Einstein on the Beach is the most abstract of the trilogy, Glass, Wilson and Childs collaboratively creating an environment for the music, theatre and dance to interact to create an alternative form of musical/theatrical narrative. Satyagraha is structured very differently, built around distinct real-life incidents in Gandhi's life, tying them to his influence on Tolstoy and Martin Luther-King and setting the whole thing to a libretto sung in Sanskrit and taken from the Bhagavad Gita. By the time we get to Akhnaten, there is still no clear or traditional narrative line to follow, but there is a linear progression of Akhnaten's coronation following the death of his father Amenhotep, his marriage to Nefertiti and his foundation of a new monotheistic religion.
The setting and ceremonial aspect of the situations (funeral, wedding, religion) perhaps makes it unavoidable, but in terms of presentation and performance, Akhnaten has less to do with the experimentation that informed Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha and resembles nothing so much as Aida. There's less of an effort to fit anti-war sentiments into a romantic melodrama narrative, and yet Akhnaten does have those qualities in its own peculiar way, and it certainly achieves an impact that is commensurate with Aida. Anyone who thinks that Glass's repetitive rhythms and arpeggios are mechanical and devoid of emotional content need only listen to the love duet of Act II to see that there is an expression as deeply romantic as any of the love duets and arias of Aida and Radamès.
After his spectacular new production of Satyagraha, it was inevitable that Phelim McDermott would be the director capable of putting a strong visual and thematic stamp upon Akhnaten. It proves to be one that not only matches the setting and period of the work in an otherworldly manner, but it works along with Glass's abstract presentation of the scenes that rely on ancient Egyptian texts and inscriptions, which are used not so much for 'authenticity' as for attaining an almost spiritual or transcendental dimension. In this Akhnaten's repetitive rhythms, marching beats and building crescendos are texturally much richer than the operas that precede it.
Another important quality to the presentation is simply engaging the audience's attention in the absence of any traditional musical or dramatic narrative; the audience still needs something to keep them amused during the long repetitive instrumental or chanted choral scenes that evidently are not subtitled (and wouldn't be all that more meaningful if they were). The idea of having a framing backdrop with posed figures like moving hieroglyphics is an obvious idea, and it does look spectacular. It doesn't strive for 'naturalism' otherwise it would (and indeed has in the past) just look like Aida. McDermott's stylisations, rather like the original English premiere of the work, go for an almost science-fiction world to emphasise the mysterious alien quality of ancient Egypt.
Other tableaux scenes are equally impressive in their lighting, colouration and movement, although for the latter McDermott relies too heavily here on jugglers; it's hypnotic for a few minutes, but nearly three hours of juggling routines is stretching it a bit. Those long building instrumental passages cry out for the kind of dance choreography Lucinda Childs would have provided or the abstract mood that Robert Wilson lighting and spacial geometrics might have produced. A troupe of jugglers throwing balls in the air only goes so far and certainly doesn't engage with the spiritual dimension that the opera aspires towards.
In terms of musical and singing performances however the ENO production is right on the mark. Akhnaten's arrangements have their own challenges and it can't be easy to balance those swirling keyboard runs with brass fanfares, flute and string arrangements, and get the choral and individual singers to weave through it all. Conductor Karen Kamensek however delivered a superbly hypnotic performance that hit the dramatic ceremonial high points and brought out the human emotional undercurrents superbly. Anthony Roth Costanzo really soars, his voice pure and otherworldly in this register to this type of score and Kate Stevenson is no less incredible alongside him. Rebecca Bottone also impresses as Queen Tye, the chorus are superb. With this kind of revival Akhnaten, like the other recently revived works in the Glass Portrait Trilogy, are proving to be special works that still hold a unique place in the world of opera.
Links: English National Opera