It was back in 1985 that ENO became the first British company to champion Philip Glass – a more controversial figure then than now – with the UK premiere of his Akhnaten, third instalment of a trilogy focusing on individuals whose ideas changed the course of history.
ENO has gone on to feature Glass’ works regularly, offering the European premiere of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 in 1988, Satyagraha in 2007 and the UK premiere of The Perfect American in 2013. In return, Glass has been good for ENO, his increasingly widely admired music drawing large audiences.
As with the hugely successful Satyagraha and The Perfect American, the new production of Akhnaten is created in collaboration with Phelim McDermott and Improbable. The visuals also make full use of the skills ensemble Gandini Juggling, whose founder and co-artistic director Sean Gandini choreographs their routines: the most spectacular of them generates a spontaneous round of applause during the music – something not often encountered in contemporary opera.
Akhnaten gives an account of the Egyptian Pharoah whose reign (around 1351-1334 BC) saw him alter the state religion, dismissing the numerous old gods and concentrating solely on the sun-god, Aten; at the beginning we see the funeral of his father, Amenhotep III, while immediately following his coronation the new king changes his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhnaten.
But his new religion fails to persuade the populace, and by the third act Akhnaten and his family are trying to ignore the protests beyond the palace walls. Eventually he is replaced, and we see modern students listening to a lecture on his now forgotten story.
The piece is an epic illustration of the transience of human achievements and the processes of historical change. But Glass’s opera is no dry history lesson; rather, in McDermott’s thrilling staging, contained within Tom Pye’s monumental sets and made magical by Kevin Pollard’s extraordinary costumes, the audience experiences a sequence of rituals that draws us into an act of contemplation as potent as it is fascinating.
Leading the cast is American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose ethereal tones embody the doomed Akhnaten. Emma Carrington sings the role of his elegant wife Nefertiti, while Rebecca Bottone suggests the grandeur of his concerned mother, Tye. As the Scribe, Zachary James gives the audience crucial information in English in an opera sung mostly in ancient Egyptian or Hebrew. Karen Kamensek conducts ENO’s expert orchestra a secure performance of the mesmerising score.
At the centre of the evening is ENO’s chorus, which has a great evening from both a musical and a dramatic point of view. One can hardly ignore the company’s desperate plight at this moment. At the time of writing, my understanding is that the chorus has put on hold its plan to absent itself from part of the performance on March 18 pending further talks with the management.
The bigger question is whether Arts Council England, having witnessed the widespread dismay caused by the results of their withdrawal of core funding, can now show strength rather than weakness by reconsidering their decision. The stature of ENO’s current work – including this outstanding show – demands no less.