Akhnaten, English National Opera

February 22, 2019 by

This production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten is totally spellbinding, lingering long after the curtain has fallen on its beguiling visual beauty and the composer’s mesmerising music.

Two young Welsh singers joining the cast for Phelim McDermott’s 2016 production (Martha Jones and Angharad Lyddon) singing two of the revolutionary pharaoh’s six daughters and one can only imagine their experience of performing in a work of deserved almost classic status, a hypnotic piece of music theatre.

The work had its UK premiere 34 years ago, making it all the more remarkable that musically it remains an exhilarating experience and this revival of the McDermott production retains the exquisite beauty, mystery and captivating enigmatic atmosphere melding perfectly with Glass’s seductive sounds.

This third of Glass’ “portrait operas”, Akhnaten follows Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, and challenges the expectations of opera audiences but seems to have enchanted and enthralled all who have experienced the opera – and this production in particular.



Tom Pye, Kevin Pollard and Bruno Poet’s golden, exotic, designs are splendid including a multi-levelled set that enables a flow of movements and characters all creating stunning tableaux that are unforgettable: the gods of Egypt, the representatives of army, religion and state, the Book of the Dead, the pharaoh’s family and, central to everything, the visionary ruler, his wife and the ever-present sun.

Rather than a drama of narrative told in song and a multitude of scene changes, this is a through-flowing experience with Akhnaten’s aria in praise of the monotheistic sun-god and his duet with his queen the most memorable. Glass’s music is repetitive, calm, the voices heavy in chants and all at a pace where we slip into near meditation. This is heightened with most of the singing being in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian.

Taking inspiration from surviving cave reliefs at the city Akhnaten built, the incorporation of Sean Gandini’s jugglers as both a unifying and symbolic dramatic device works as a non-verbal narration of the progress, violence and ultimate failure of the religious revolution. Other famous reliefs (the rays from he sun ending in hands, reaching down to Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s family along with the remarkably unflattering and presumably realistic depictions of the pharaoh) are also incorporated in the fabulous spectacle.



Katie Stevenson, Anthony Roth Constanzo and Rebecca Bottone


It is hard to imagine this role sung and perhaps even more so acted by another countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo acts from his appearance as a naked boy, his transfiguration into pharaoh to the broken figure carried from his failed “experiment”. His entire performance is dark and refined, a symbiosis of religion and majesty. It is a haunting balance of ritualistic power and human frailty.

Similarly dreamlike is Katie Stevenson as Akhnaten’s wife Nefertiti and an at times aghast Rebecca Bottone as his mother Queen Tye complete the royal group. Stevenson calming mezzo intertwines with the countertenor, while Bottone’s soprano seems to embody the horror of the death cult of ancient Eqyptian religion. The spoken script from the imposing Zachary James is delivered with a sonorous force that balances the otherworldly voice of the genderless pharaoh.

The embodiment of the old order, Colin Judson, James Cleverton and Keel Watson, project strongly particularly Watson as Aye respondent in a skull-crowned top hat –  very New Orleans Mardi Gras.

Karen Kamensek conducts with a reverence for the near solemnity of the score.


Until March 7.



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