American counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has made the title role his own, and it is hard to imagine any other artist carrying off this musical highwire act. Luckily he shows no sign of retreating from the role he first interpreted it in Phelim McDermott's scintillating production for English National Opera in 2016, and again in 2019. That’s just as well, for audience appetite for the character and the opera is, rightly and understandably, insatiable.
The opera opens with the lifeless husk of the pharoah Amenhotep III surrounded by celebrants and/or scientists. With the tweed suits of amateur archaeologists beneath their white coats, they inspect their specimen dispassionately. Commenting both vocally and gesturally are the chorus and physical theatre company Improbable and the Gandini Juggling Company.
Jugglers, actors, chorus and soloists in Akhnaten. Photo: Belinda Jiao
Glass’s pulsating score slowly pumps life into the new king, Akhnaten, who is raised to his full magnificence before our very eyes, his naked form sumptuously dressed by attendants. With new-found glory comes dignified animation and a voice.
And what a voice: ethereal and otherworldly, Costanzo’s floating high notes signal ‘alive and kicking’ as dream-like, dignified movement flows into his graceful limbs. The chorus raise their voices too, and often in Glass’s hypnotic score roles are reversed: the chorus’s lines sound like instrumental accompaniment to songs within the orchestra.
Conductor Karen Kamensek draws no distinction between the many musicians on stage and in the pit, while American bass Zachary James intones Akhnaten’s story, revealing why the people turned against their remote ruler. This is the sort of seamless teamwork at which English National Opera excels. Only the gods know why such excellence should be imperilled by underfunding.
Jolson Loy (Aye), Paul Curievici (High Priest of Amon) and Benson Wilson (Horemhab). Photo: Belinda Jiao
The androgynous Akhnaten is joined by his wife Nefertiti (stately mezzo-soprano Chrystal E Williams) and his mother (bright-voiced soprano Haegee Lee). The latter is all gussied up like the old Queen Mary in furs, curls and pearls; the early 20th-century craze for Egyptology runs through this shapeshifting, time-drifting dream world.
In Tom Pye’s set design and Kevin Pollard's costumes, by turns exotic and functional, hieroglyphs come to life and, with the help of Bruno Poet’s luscious lighting, everything seems coated in a film of gold.
Three steam punk pillars of state also mosey in and out of the action – among them Benson Wilson as a flamboyant general and future pharaoh Horemhab. And six daughters, the Rhinemaidens of Ancient Egypt, are literally bound up in their anxiety for their patriarch.
The death of androgynous Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo), mourned by the Scribe (Zachary James). Photo: Belinda Jiao
All the while juggling balls fly high or dip low, lobbed by living ushabti, those clay companions of the dead. Their writing in the air tracks Akhnaten’s condition like a hospital monitor, flatlining when, as is inevitable, he falls like all before him.
But Akhnaten will outlive all around him in his own way – already has done since the first performance of this opera 40 years ago. And he does it again in this exceptional, unmissable production. Glass’s music is his heartbeat.
Akhnaten is sung in English, Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian with no surtitles. It is a co-production with LA Opera. Further performances are on 23, 24, 29, 30 March; 1, 4 (relaxed) and 5 April
|What||Akhnaten, English National Opera review|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
11 Mar 23 – 05 Apr 23, Nine performances, start times vary. Running time c3hr, including two intervals
|Price||£0 to £160|
|Website||Click here for details and booking|