Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Akhnaten

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

✭✭✭✭✭

by Philip Glass, directed by Phelim McDermott

• English National Opera & Improbable, The Coliseum, London

February 11-March 7, 2019;

• Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York*

November 8-December 7, 2019

Scribe: “Open are the double doors of the horizon”

The English National Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in 2016 played to sold-out houses and won the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Opera Production. Now it has returned and is just as popular. This is quite an achievement for a late 20th-century opera. Akhnaten had its world premiere on Stuttgart in 1984 and since then the world has had three decades to accustom itself to Glass’s form of minimalism. What makes Phelim McDermott’s production so successful is that it is both visually stunning and clearly tells the story of Egypt’s radical monotheistic pharaoh.

Akhnaten is the concluding opera of Glass’s so-called “Portrait Trilogy” about three men with world-changing ideas beginning with Einstein on the Beach (1976) and continuing with Satyagraha (1980) about Gandhi. Akhnaten is the most conventional of the three by focussing on the pharaoh and his family as characters rather than on the pharaoh’s abstract influence and by telling his story in chronological order. 

The opera begins with the Scribe (a spoken role) intoning sections of the Pyramid Texts in English about guiding the deceased to a new life. We see the funeral rites for Akhnaten’s father Amenhotep III (reigned c.1391-1353BC). Glass depicts a funeral procession led by Aye, Nefertiti’s father and the previous pharaoh’s advisor, who is later joined by the High Priest of Amon, the creator deity, and Horemhab, an advisor who would become pharaoh after Akhnaten’s son and the son’s successor. 

The three prepare Akhnaten, known then at Amenhotep IV, for his coronation as king of both Upper and Lower Egypt. He is joined by his wife, Queen Nefertiti and his mother Queen Tye. By the end of Act I, Amenhotep IV has had his revelation that the only god of Egypt’s large pantheon who should be worshipped is Aten, or the sun in its form as a disc. 

Act 2 depicts the fifth through fifteenth years of teh young pharaoh’s reign. In the fifth year Amenhotep changes his name (“Amon is satisfied”) to rid it of the name of the creator god Amon. He chooses “Akhnaten” meaning “Effective for Aten”, and as a warrior begins a process of erasing other other gods’ names from tombs and monuments and definancing temples to other gods. Akhnaten also builds an entire city, Akhetaten, also known as Amarna, for the worship of Aten and makes it his capital. The Scribe recites descriptions of the city from the boundary stones of the city. The act ends with Akhnaten singing “The Great Hymn to Aten”, which he is thought to have written himself. Unlike all the only vocal music in the opera, Glass specifies that it be sung in the language of the audience. Afterwards, a chorus sings Psalm 104 in Hebrew, written about 4000 years later, to highlight Akhnaten as the founder of the first monotheistic religion. 

Act 3 depicts the period from the seventeenth year of Akhnaten’s reign to the present. While Akhnaten is safe with his family, he ignores the outside world that has turned against him. The Scribe recites letters in Akkadian from Akhnaten’s Syrian vassals asking for assistance, but Akhnaten does nothing. Horemhab, Aye and the High Priest of Aten incite the mob to violence and Akhnaten and his family are killed. 

The Scribe recites the inscription on Aye’s tomb where Akhnaten is called a “heretic” and praises the return of worship of the old gods under Akhnaten’s son, Tutankhamen. The Scribe now takes on the guise of a tour guide and recites the description of present-day Amarna, where virtually nothing is left of Akhnaten’s great city, all of it having been dismantled and reused after his death. Tourists clamber over the ruins. When they leave, the ghosts of Akhnaten, Queen Tye and Nefertiti sing a final lament. 

Clearly, the challenge for any director of Akhnaten is to create a world as spectacular as the story and as gripping as Glass’s propulsive music. This is exactly what Phelim McDermott has achieved. Glass’s primary image in his libretto is that of a funeral cortege that continues either prominently or in the background of all three acts. McDermott fills the action with far more detail.

The curtain opens on a basic three-storey set by Tom Pye that fills the entire space of the proscenium. On the first level we see both the embalming of Amenhotep III and the heart-weighing chamber of the underworld side-by-side. On one side of the lowest level, McDermott shows the embalmers, dressed as modern surgeons, removing the four organs thought to be needed by the deceased in the afterlife – the stomach, intestines, lungs and liver – and placing them in canopic jars to be buried with the pharaoh. According to tradition, the god Anubis would weigh the heart against a feather. If it weighed more than the feather it was therefore more wicked than good and the person would be devoured by the demon Ammit. In a conflation of the this world and the next, McDermott has the surgeons give Queen Tye (Rebecca Bottone) the heart of the pharaoh. This she gives not to the gods of the underworld but to Horemhab (James Cleverton), Aye (Keel Watson) and the High Priest of Amon (Colin Hudson) to weigh against the feather. 

Queen Tye is costumed from the neck down as a Victorian lady wearing furs and pearl necklaces, her red hair and white makeup recalls Queen Elizabeth 1, but her headpiece is that of the sky goddess Isis in her avatar as Hathor, the mother of the sun god, with cow horns enclosing a sun disk. By costuming Tye in this way, McDermott sets up a wide array of symbolic associations. As the wife of Amenhotep III, Queen Tye is of the older generation of believers that Akhnaten wants to replace. Yet, as the wearer of the sun-disc, Tye also represents the life-giving and healing power of the sun that Akhnaten wants to celebrate.

On the second storey of the set is the chorus in a wide array of individualized costumes ranging from middle eastern and European medieval peasants to 19th-century British officers. The uppermost storey has nine performers all clad in hooded bodysuits designed to look either like reptiles or like parched earth. When we first see them they are wearing animal heads associated with the nine deities of Egypt that make up the Ennead, the longest-lasting grouping of the several groupings of the numerous Egyptian deities.

Most significant is that these non-singing, non-speaking performers are members of Gandini Juggling and they juggle with three or more white balls throughout the performance. It happens that in juggling McDermott has found the perfect visual metaphor for Glass’s music. It is cyclical and repetitive but must be absolutely precise, and the energy of juggling corresponds with the throbbing, propulsive nature of the music. McDermott also makes the white ball a symbol of the sun disc so that, while we watch Akhnaten convert to worship of the the sun as the sole deity, we also see that there are other forces that keep the sun or suns in motion. This does not present a critique of Akhnaten’s inspiration but rather places it within a larger context. At the end of the opera when Akhnaten is dead, the jugglers enter juggling soft white balls which they let fall motionless to the ground, as if what kept the sun in motion was not some higher power but Akhnaten’s inspiration.

McDermott imagines one visually striking scene after another. After the the heart of Amenhotep III is weighed against the feather and found not to move the scales, Amenhotep IV appears for his coronation. McDermott has the future Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo) descend a staircase totally nude and walk over to the room of the embalmers who now take on the role of the ruler’s valets. They dress him in an extraordinarily ornate robe so large it needs a crinoline cage underneath to support it, as if to suggest that Akhnaten is an ordinary human being invested by his society with extraordinary but suffocating power. 

He is crowned with deshret the outer crown representing Lower Egypt and then with the hedjet, egg-shaped interior crown of Upper Egypt. Costume designer Kevin Pollard has altered the colours of the two crowns, making the outer one gold instead of red and the inner one red instead of white. Later a large hedjet hangs in the background and at one point Akhnaten vents his anger on it. Those who are up on their Egyptian mythology will know that both the deshret and the hedjet were associated with various deities, but neither with Aten. That is why McDermott shows Akhnaten wearing the khepresh, or blue crown of war in Act 2 or a gold-leaf skullcap in Act 3, neither with any divine associations.

McDermott ends Act 1 with Akhnaten’s revelation in which he brilliantly recreates one the famous reliefs of Akhnaten worshipping Aten, notable for its characteristic depiction of each ray of the sun ending in a helping hand, an image of sun as creator and sustainer of mankind. In Act 2, McDermott shows us another stunning vision of Akhnaten’s sun-worship by clearing the stage of the massive set, with only an enormous colour-changing globe representing the sun suspended in air, a triumph of lighting designer Bruno Poet. Akhnaten’s sings “The Great Hymn to Aten” while ascending a staircase, finally silhouetting himself against the massive sphere.

McDermott stages Akhnaten’s battles against the pro-polytheists by having the jugglers trap each of Aye, the High Priest of Amon and Horemhab in the triangular space created when three jugglers rapidly toss Indian clubs to each other. The duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti is marked by the beautiful symmetry of the scene as the two, dressed identically, slowly move toward each other to centre stage as they sing. After Akhnaten is deposed and killed, McDermott depicts the crowning of Akhnaten’s son, Tutankhamen, as his successor, thus helping to place the events of the opera in an historical context. The mere fact that costume designer Pollard has Tutankhamen wear basketball shoes with his royal regalia suggests that he will not follow in his father’s footsteps. McDermott reimagines the Scribe at the end not as a tour guide but as a teacher. He eliminates the tourists from Glass’s scenario and finds a much more poignant way of depicting Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye as ghosts.

Glass’s orchestral music with its emphasis on repetition and precision over expression, forces the emotional weight of the opera almost entirely onto the voices. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo possesses a gorgeous instrument, full, rich and capable of many colours that makes him ideal for the various roles Akhnaten plays in the opera. His fervent account of “The Great Hymn to Aten” is certainly the high point of the opera. He is also a fine actor and, even if the lyrics are in ancient Egyptian or merely open vowels, he communicates much simply through his facial expressions.

Though the Scribe is only a speaking part bass Zachary James’s resonant eloquence brings out all the adulation, anxiety, triumph and lamentation in the Scribe’s speeches, acting out the words to emphasize their importance. In this he is the ideal mediator between the present-day audience and the events depicted in the 14th century BC.

The main requirement of the women in a Philip Glass's opera is purity of tone. In that both Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye and Katie Stevenson as Nefertiti shine. Bottone’s high, full soprano is so lovely is it a pity Glass never gives her a solo, but Bottone makes up for this with such soulful acting that we can sense at any moment her character’s emotions. Nevertheless, when she does sing her voice easily blends with those of Costanzo and Stevenson in the many trios they sing. As Nefertiti mezzo-soprano Stevenson does have solo passages, especially before she and Costanzo join in their gorgeous Act 2 duet. Her rich voice is beautiful on its own but like Bottone, it blends perfectly with Costanzo and Bottone in their trios.

Tenor Colin Judson as the High Priest of Amon, baritone James Cleverton as Horemhab and bass-baritone Keel Watson as Aye sing almost exclusively as a trio. Their voices also blend in an ideal fashion and though singing in Old Egyptian, they manage to express the menace and outrage of these representatives of the past whose beliefs Akhnaten wishes to expunge. 

Conductor Karen Kamensek keeps tight control over the ENO Orchestra and Chorus and they give performances of admirable precision and intensity. Akhnaten is the first of Glass’s operas featuring sudden changes of tempo, and Kamensek makes each of these shifts feel part of the natural flow of the music.

While overall Phelim McDermott’s production might be called post-modern because of its mix of ancient and contemporary styles, it is remarkable in filling out the detail of the life and beliefs in ancient Egypt with details not mentioned in libretto. In doing so he makes Akhnaten’s world more real. Those who have read histories of ancient Egypt, toured the country or are familiar with ancient Egyptian art will find they can follow the action without any reference to a plot summary because McDermott has depicted the history and the customs so clearly. Which its all-pervasive imagery of discs and spheres of all sizes, the stage picture is filled with visual appeal as well as symbolic meaning. Having seen Akhnaten in this magnificent production, I would now hesitate to see it in any other.

Christopher Hoile

*Note: The ENO production will be seen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with Anthony Roth Costanzo and Zachary James reprising their roles and Karen Kamensek conducting. It will later be broadcast to cinemas as part of the Met’s Live in HD series.

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten; Katie Stevenson as Nefertiti, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten and Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye; Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten and the Gandini Jugglers; Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten; Katie Stevenson as Nefertiti, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten and Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye with Zachary James as the Scribe above. © 2019 Jane Hobson. 

For tickets, visit www.eno.org or www.metopera.org.