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Reviews

13 Feb 2019

Philip Glass: Akhnaten – English National Opera

There is a famous story that when Philip Glass first met Nadia Boulanger she pointed to a single bar of one of his early pieces and said: “There, that was written by a real composer”. Glass recalls that it was the only positive thing she ever said about him

Akhnaten, English National Opera

A review by Marc Bridle

Above:Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten)

Photo credit: Jane Hobson

 

Sitting through English National Opera’s production of Akhnaten, you clearly get the sense that there are many bars of great music here, written by a great composer, but what this opera shares with Satyagraha, which was staged at ENO last year, is an overwhelming sense that Glass simply doesn’t know when to finish what he has started. To suggest the ends of his operas are interminable is something of an understatement. They go on. And on.

I’m not sure it helps that in recent years there has been a tendency to take Glass’s music more slowly - each of the three acts here was longer than advertised in the press notes, and the performance itself was significantly broader than the only recording of this opera. This had benefits - and drawbacks. Visually, Phelim McDermott’s direction is stunning - it’s beautiful to look at, the colours are distinctively Egyptian (the blues, purples, oranges and golds), the heat from the sun is often so bright you can feel its warmth against your face, and there are clever juxtapositions between symbiology and elements of the scenery - but it is also full of distractions. If I found the performance often to be lacking in power, and slightly flat in expression - contrary to the widely held belief that Minimalism doesn’t have the musical range to be expressionist - it was undeniably beautifully sung and, in the case of Act II, almost overwhelming so.

Akhnaten is, I suppose, what you might call a palindromic opera. This isn’t just in the narrative - starting with the funeral of Amenhotep III and ending with the death and funeral of Akhnaten himself; it’s also reflected in the recapitulation of the music, too, at either ends of the opera (though in typical Glass fashion he goes on. And on.). Almost identically palindromic are the orchestral and vocal timbres of the opera itself and the great repetitions you hear in both. There are no violins, so the balance given to the orchestra is predominantly dark; on the other hand, Akhnaten is sung by a counter-tenor and Nefertiti by an alto so they, too, occupy an almost identical range albeit at polar opposites of the sound spectrum. A great production of Akhnaten doesn’t ignore these spatial contrasts - and ENO’s comprehensively embraces them. The almost hieroglyphic symbiology which appears on the backdrop during the opening orchestral prelude to the opera is itself a kind of symmetry to McDermott’s direction: a square frame comes to represent ‘The Window of Appearances’, an image of steps reflects the iron staircase a fully naked Akhnaten descends before his coronation ceremony and which he later climbs to get closer to the sun, and a symbol of a house defines the reign of the young pharaoh himself.

One of the blessings of this production is that it remains so relatively close to the libretto and its historical reference points. Glass does fit a lot into a short time span - an entire almost two-decade reign. One could argue the essence of agelessness, and immortality, is ever-present, only for it to be cruelly cut down by death itself. Glass’s “portrait” operas are, after all, about historical figures who live long after their events, who shape humanity in their own time and forever afterwards. But Akhnaten’s reign was about cult, it was about redefining the very concept of religion itself and the ruin and unrest of a society that never accepted it. In that sense, Akhnaten has a particular relevance that is still being fought about today - but if you look slightly deeper beyond the surface of McDermott’s production he also touches on social division, race and gender identity, for example.

Akhnaten’s recognition of the sun - or Aten, predominantly the sun disc and its rays of light - is the dominant visual image of the production. It is exactly that - a vast disc - blinding in Act I, but by Act II is set in the background as something to be reached towards against a myriad of sunsets and sunrises. The cleverness of Bruno Poet’s lighting is that the colours merge and distort and change and are so subtle that the eye never really notices them until after they’ve happened. The overwhelming memory of Act II - and it’s a powerful one - is of Akhnaten slowly climbing the stairs to get closer to the sun, almost to become consumed by and absorbed into it. Strip lights are used to show rays of sunlight fanning out of Akhnaten like a brilliant plume of peacock feathers. And yet, the mythology of human destruction - that getting too close to the sun is fatal - never quite strays far from the mind.

Katie Stevenson Anthony Roth Costanzo Rebecca Bottone.jpg Katie Stevenson (Nefertiti), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) and Rebecca Bottone (Queen Tye). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

I had mentioned at the beginning of this review that there are some distractions. This is mainly to do with the juggling - done with quite mesmerising effect by the Gandini Juggling Company. The booklet notes do suggest that this art-form was commonplace in Ancient Egypt so it isn’t as if it’s just there for no purpose - and, in fact, their purpose is quite a symbolic one in McDermott’s production. It’s clearly completely absorbing to watch, and I think if your peripheral vision is good enough you can clearly focus on what is happening elsewhere on stage too. The distraction is really at a human level in that you constantly (or, I certainly did) felt disaster was just around the corner: a clash of balls here, batons that slip between fingers. Technically, it was extraordinarily balletic and often coalesced around Glass’s music. Symbolically the balls do represent the disc of the sun, but most cleverly of all is their use during the death of Akhnaten himself. As the jugglers throw the balls high up into the air and let them drop to the floor the effect is of an executioner’s axe.

The casting of this production is superb - I’m not really sure it has a single weak link. Anthony Roth Costanzo, singing the role of Akhnaten for the third time (his second for ENO, and once in Los Angeles) has evolved into a dominant stage presence. It is rarely enough for an opera singer just to be able to sing the part but what makes Costanzo such a delight to watch is his undeniable stage presence. His devolution into something close to method acting - the defined body tone, the balletic - near glacial - movements, the almost Vedic discipline, and the spiritual closeness to Glass’s music - are extraordinarily convincing. Align this with singing that has such sweeping beauty and a range of emotion that is unusual for a counter-tenor and his assumption of the role of Akhnaten is a deeply moving portrait rather than a performance. Act I rather passed me by, to be honest, it all felt rather anodyne from a musical point of view - but Costanzo has rather less to do in that rather than simply move (naked, or otherwise). Act II, however, was a tour de force - simply one of the most emotionally, and vocally, powerful displays of singing I’ve heard for quite some time. The voice can sometimes feel a little strained at the bottom of the register - but Glass rarely goes there - although those repeated, long “Ha’s” were glorious with a breath control that was peerless. The love duet - itself starting and ending in such slow motion like a mating ritual, with the lovers intertwining in an ocean of blood-red drapery - had extraordinary intensity to it - both as a visual and vocal spectacle. But perhaps nothing quite came close to Costanzo’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’. His ascent towards and into the vast disc of the sun seemed eternal but was also somehow completely motionless. It had been sung magnificently.

Roth2 Hobson.jpg Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

One can’t fault Katie Stevenson’s Nefertiti either. The voice is exceptionally beautiful to hear, razor sharp yet full of expressive touches. The chemistry between her and Costanzo - especially in the love duet - was entirely of the kind where you found yourself being drawn into their love story and not away from it. Equally fascinating, was Costanzo’s on-stage relationship with his mother, Queen Tye, sang by Rebbeca Bottone. If with her white-powdered face, tightly curled hair and almost stony gaze, she slightly reminded me of the Virgin Queen she has a magnificently authoritative presence and powerful, resonating voice to match. Zachary James’ Scribe dominates the stage like Fafner - the voice powerful, his diction absolutely crystal clear. In many respects, so much of the casting was exemplary because ENO had brought in identical singers from the 2016 run of this production - there was a very distinct sense of everything just falling into place as you very rarely get in revivals.

My only real criticism of this performance is with Karen Kamensek’s conducting of it. No one should underestimate the difficulty in playing Glass’s music, but one of the issues with this production is whether the pacing of it is because McDermott wants the music played this slowly because the movement of the actors on stage relies on it being played this way, or whether Kamensek is of the view (now also largely believed by Dennis Russell Davies in his later reworkings of Glass’s scores) that the music should simply be played this way and McDermott fleshes out his production around this. This largely worked with her conducting ofSatyagraha last year; it wasn’t always so successful with Akhnaten on opening night here. You might, for example, certainly expect a more flexible, but broader, tempo to bring more power to the music in Akhnaten - but oddly that didn’t always happen. The magnificent timpani and brass passages that Glass writes for the Funeral of Amenhotep III in Act I, for example, were oddly underwhelming. On the other hand, that very expansiveness was absolutely compelling in Act II and Act III when the music is much less dramatically visceral and more intensely drawn. There’s no denying the ENO orchestra play this music with impressive precision - though I think on this occasion they took a little more time to find their stride.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had much truck with people - or critics, for that matter - who find Glass’s music incomprehensible, or the musical equivalent of watching paint dry. Akhnaten is an unquestionable masterpiece - and in many respects Phelim McDermott’s production of it is one that brings this work to life. It would also, I think, be very hard to imagine a better cast Akhnaten than the one we have here.

Marc Bridle

Akhnaten - Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nefertiti - Katie Stevenson, Queen Tye - Rebecca Bottone, Horemhab - James Cleverton, Aye - Keel Watson, High Priest - Colin Judson, Scribe - Zachary James; Director - Phelim McDermott, Conductor - Karen Kamensek, Set Designer - Tom Pye, Costume Designer - Kevin Pollard, Lighting Designer - Bruno Poet, Gandini Juggling Company, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera

English National Opera, London; 11th February 2019

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