Review by Raphael Kohn
‘Open are the double doors of the horizon’, proclaims the Scribe as ten minutes of repetitive string motifs finally allow the curtain to lift. What he should be saying is, ‘open are the audience’s mouths’, which hang open in amazement at ENO’s production of Akhnaten. Returning after seasons in London, New York, and LA, this enigmatic, 3-hour-long opera charting the genesis of monotheism in Ancient Egypt, set to Philip Glass’ repetitive, hypnotic score, dares to be bold – and in such style, you simply can’t help but be mesmerised.
Premiered in 1984, Akhnaten follows its titular protagonist, the new Pharaoh of Egypt in 1370 BC as he declares the birth of a new religion with one singular god – Aten, the god of the sun. And so begins a new age in Egypt as Akhnaten, and his wife Nefertiti, rule over a new society dedicated solely to Aten… at least they think. But all is not so simple when beyond Egypt’s borders, war rages. Eventually, the people of Egypt attack the royal palace, killing the royal family and laying ruin to the new religion. This plot is not the selling point; the characters’ motivations, actions and relationships are barely explored. The genius of Akhnaten lies in the music and theatricality of the piece, creating three hours of mastery onstage, which go by so quickly, you can barely believe that time still exists.
What makes Akhnaten so tremendously spectacular is every aspect of the visual and musical storytelling. Philip Glass’ score, formed of small motifs that repeat for over 10 minutes on end, is a masterpiece, hooking the audience into a trance and hypnotising them with its ebbs and flows. This is performed divinely by the ENO orchestra – famously stripped of its violins for Akhnaten to darken the sound coming out of the pit – under the baton of Karen Kamensek.
The theatrical storytelling holds Akhnaten together strongly. Most of the time, each singer moves in slow motion across the stage, with the story illustrated around them by jugglers, choreographed by Sean Gandini. While there was a slight lack of synchronicity in the first act, this was wholly redeemed by the sheer perfection from the jugglers in the second and third acts, which used the juggling, itself repeating motifs that echoed Glass’ repetitive score, to create a breathtaking visual spectacle.
I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever been so speechless than at Akhnaten, with its glowing lighting (from the remarkable design of Bruno Poet and Gary James) on Tom Pye’s set. This design has some of the finest setpieces you will ever see, with a huge glowing sun in the background at one point to create a strikingly visually arresting tableau and a multi-tiered palace for the rest of the opera. This is a majestic, mesmerising, magnificent masterpiece of theatrical design, so astonishing that you can barely believe your eyes.
Anthony Roth Constanzo, now a seasoned veteran as Akhnaten, having played the role for over seven years, is just as good as his reputation. With a countertenor voice that transports you across the universe with its soaring, awe-inspiring quality, Constanzo is rightfully practically worshipped for his performance. With the radiant Chrystal E. Williams as Nefertiti and the powerful Zachary James as the Scribe, Akhnaten will probably never sound so good as it has at the ENO this year. I cannot imagine a better cast.
I honestly wish I could tell you to book tickets for this. But I can’t – the entire run has sold out. When it returns to London (and it will soon, mark my words), godspeed to you getting tickets – even those of us who may be less inspired by opera than others won’t want to miss this work of sheer operatic perfection.
Akhnaten runs until April 5th at the ENO. It is sold out, but standing tickets may be available through the box office: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/akhnaten/