If you had told me 10 years ago that English National Opera’s biggest hit would be a 20th-century opera sung in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian, with little obvious plot and no subtitles – oh, and juggling – I would have scoffed. And I’d have been wrong. Three London runs and three sets of sell-out houses later, plus acclaimed outings in New York and LA, and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten is the unlikeliest triumph in opera: a logic-defying piece of theatrical magic.
And magic it really is. You can see what Akhnaten does, feel its effect on your pulse (alternately slows and races), your concentration (absolute), the way time passes (in strange surges and ebbs), but it’s almost impossible to work out how the production pulls it off.
There have been clearer stagings of this quasi-biographical piece about the rise and fall of ancient Egyptian Pharoah Akhnaten, whose attempt to introduce monotheism saw his name and legacy all but expunged from history, but none that do what director Phelim McDermott does so unexpectedly in his alchemical fusion of sound, image and movement.
There are no violins in Glass’s orchestra, dimming the sonic brightness. The muted shades of the composer’s densely patterned scales and arpeggios are the backdrop against which designers Tom Pye and Kevin Pollard silhouette relentlessly gorgeous, colour-flooded images – a living frieze of Egyptian gods; a giant sun flushed red silhouetting a tiny human figure – which choreographer Sean Gandini fills with hypnotic rituals of movement.
Just as Glass’s score reduces music to its essential units – a single chord; a single rhythm – so the designs take big ideas back to their essence: an orb; scales; a wheel. It’s the same story with movement. The Gandini jugglers aren’t there for decoration, their synchronised patterns reduce gesture to its elements. Battle becomes a single spear-throw arc, celebration a fountain of upward throws, each repeated again and again. No applause greets even their most astonishing feats on opening night – a sure sign that we’ve gone beyond circus-skills and arrived at art.
This is a marathon of a score, and both ENO’s orchestra and chorus under conductor Karen Kamensek show their mettle. The soloists (including returning star-turn Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role) are all exemplary. Chrystal E Williams sings a luscious Nefertiti, united with Akhnaten in a staggeringly sensual love-duet.
If ever there was a show that makes the case for ENO, for why London needs two opera companies, then this is it. The Royal Opera could never conceive this Akhnaten – its tight web of disciplines and intricate assembly requires rehearsal time their international stars would never commit – nor would they ever choose to stage this repertoire in the first place. And looking around at the lively young crowd, feeling the energy in the intervals and hearing the reactions, we’d be much the poorer without it.