Behold the Sun
“Opened are the double doors of the Horizon, unlocked are its bolts. Clouds darken the sky. The stars rain down. The constellations stagger”. Refrain in Act 1, prelude of Akhnaten, quoting from The Egyptian Book of the Dead
Akhnaten, an opera in three acts by Philip Glass, ENO, London Coliseum, Conductor, Karen Kamensek, Director, Phelim McDermott
Reviewed by Leslie Jones
Unlike some opera, Akhnaten is informed by ideas and thereby brings to mind Wagner’s concept of the total art work (Gesamkunstwerk). In the striking opening scene, the corpse of Pharaoh Amenhotep III is being prepared for his voyage into the afterlife. His viscera are removed and placed in canopic jars and the test of the weighing of the heart against a feather, as mentioned in The Egyptian Book of the Dead, is performed on a giant scales. In the final scene, everything has come full circle. We now behold the body of Amenhotep’s son Akhnaten (usually called Akhenaten in the literature) him-self laid out for entombment. His son Tutenkhamun is then duly crowned. Nothing really changes is evidently the message here. Akhnaten’s attempt to introduce a monotheistic religion based on the worship of the sun god Aten has ultimately failed. The conservative vested interests that benefitted from polytheism, notably the priesthood, have prevailed. Akhnaten, like the hero of Glass’s opera Satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi, was perhaps fated to die violently.
Glass’s work is generally considered modernist or avant garde but John Richardson (“Exploring Akhnaten”, programme guide) refers insightfully to what he calls the “New Age Baroque of Akhnaten”, emphasising the score’s “pan-historicity” and musical borrowings. For Glass’s sound world is in certain respects neo-classical. In Akhnaten, elements from earlier musical styles are incorporated such as the Baroque chaconne and the use of a countertenor in imitation of the castrati of 18th century opera.
Glass dislikes the term”Minimalism” and considers himself a composer of “music with repetitive structures”. Highly eclectic, it is not surprising to learn that he has worked with rock musicians or that he plays keyboards in the Philip Glass Ensemble. Words like compelling, hypnotic, mesmerising and powerful can justifiably be used to describe his output. There are even echoes of the “Wall of Sound” of pop genius Phil Spector.
Special effects, including projected geometric shapes reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs; a luminous red egg that hangs in space and that complements Akhnaten’s crown; a large globe or disc that presumably represents the sun; men circulating in a giant wheel; a stairway that possibly symbolises transcending the material realm; simultaneous action on different platforms (as in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic) but also horizontal segmentation of the mise en scène; brilliant costumes; jugglers and puppets; everything makes for an overwhelming experience. Of recent productions, for this reviewer only the 2007 version of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart in the lead role and set in a hospital morgue with a sinister lift and nurses that morphed alarmingly into witches, bears comparison.
In the interval(s), QR spoke to the publicity team at ENO who reported that the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who plays Akhnaten, prepared for this physically demanding role by practicing yoga. Since Akhnaten was reputedly a hermaphrodite, Costanzo was required in the Coronation scene to perform in the nude with prosthetically enhanced breasts. His singing was outstanding, both in the love duet with Nefertiti (Emma Carrington) and in his hymn to Aten. All told, a triumph for ENO and for everyone involved.
Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of QR