The characters in English National Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten might have stepped down from an ancient Egyptian tomb painting as they glide across the stage in extreme slow-motion, arms outstretched or palms turned upwards. Restaged by Phelim McDermitt of Improbable peeformance company, the inspiration for this new production is Egyptian bas reliefs reflecting life in Akhnaten’s court, the stylised rays of the sun represented on stage by neon light sticks and the unfurling of golden ribbons, together with some gorgeous lighting effects by Bruno Poet. There are jugglers too, in this production, also inspired by ancient Egyptian art, and their activities enhance both narrative and music.
I saw the very first ENO production of Akhnaten, back in 1985. Then, the setting was spare, ultra-minimalist, with just a pyramid and a sun disc (as I recall). This new production is sumptuous, with opulent, richly-decorated costumes designed by Kevin Pollard, and fine singing from both soloists and ENO chorus.
We know that the ancient Egyptians were a ritualistic people, and this aspect is given full rein in this new production. The opera opens with a long orchestral sequence, during which hieroglyphs are projected onto a painted screen. As the stage is illuminated, the screen takes on the gauzy, grainy appearance of ancient papyrus, and through it we see seated figures with the heads of Egyptian gods – Osiris, Horus, Anubis. In the bottom segment of the set, which takes its inspiration from Egyptian wall-paintings, another ritual is taking place, as the dead Pharaoh Amenhotep III is prepared for burial. Meanwhile, his son appears, naked and vulnerable. Another ritual then ensues as Akhnaten, sung by American counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, is carefully, passively attired by his minions (played by the juggling troupe), and transformed into the new king.
No one rushes, no one runs. Even the jugglers’ balls move with grace, always perfectly synchronised. Combined with Glass’s pulsating, hypnotic score, with its luminous harmonic shifts, the overall effect is of a bas-relief or wall-painting miraculously brought to life and viewed in exquisite slow-motion. More art installation than opera, the narrative moves with an intense concentration which is both absorbing and thrilling, and this slowness, rather than creating longeurs, amplifies the epic scale. Add to this Anthony Roth Costanzo’s extraordinary other-wordly voice – made even more extraordinary when combined with Emma Carrington’s beautiful, statuesque Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone’s Queen Tye, who haunts the stage like the old Queen Mary of Tek – plus the ENO chorus’s powerful and elegaic contributions.
The non-naturalistic direction never appears contrived and the slow-motion narrative builds in intensity like a solemn meditation. Even the destruction of Akhnaten’s city and his own death are told with the same glacial control, the jugglers tossing their balls into the air and simply letting them drop to the floor to illustrate the fall of Akhnaten’s empire and his belief system.
In a way, the narrative – the story of Akhnaten the Pharaoh who exchanged a polytheistic (many gods) belief system for a monotheistic system (worship of the sun disc) – is irrelevant, and the programme contains a detailed synopsis, libretto and copious accompanying notes. Simply allow yourself to be bathed in Glass’s rapturous music and feast your eyes on this captivating and evocative production.
‘Akhnaten’ continues in repertory at English National Opera until 18th March 2016
(Header image: Clive Bayley, Anthony Roth Costanzo, James Cleverton and Colin Judson, photo Richard Hubert Smith)