Review: AKHNATEN, London Coliseum

An epic revival destined to become a modern classic.

By: Mar. 19, 2023
Review: AKHNATEN, London Coliseum
Enter Your Email to Unlock This Article

Plus, get the best of BroadwayWorld delivered to your inbox, and unlimited access to our editorial content across the globe.

Existing user? Just click login.

Review: AKHNATEN, London Coliseum Who's up for a three-hour long opera about the relatively unknown pharaoh Akhnaten? With the singing in Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian? With no surtitles? Based on the music of minimalist composer Phillip Glass? And featuring a troupe of jugglers? Jugglers? Frankly, this has greater potential to be a car crash than James Dean popping out for a pint of milk.

That gag might be old and cheap but this production brought to us by the ENO and Improbable Productions is anything but. Improbable's Phelim McDermott's visionary interpretation of Glass's work was critically lauded on its previous ENO outings in 2016 and 2019 as well as its appearances in New York and Los Angeles. More recently, the Olivier-nominated director has reached new heights through another Coliseum opera, the highly-acclaimed funfair-themed Così fan tutte, and My Neighbour Totoro, a play last year which shattered the Barbican box office record set by Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet.

These days, Akhnaten is an obscure figure outside Egyptology circles but his life and ambitions are a valuable parable for modern times. On ascending the throne, he abandoned the polytheistic traditions and focused his population's attention on a sun god called "the Aten" and changed his name from Amenhotep ("Amun is content") to Akhnaten ("effective for the Aten"). It was a controversial move which set Egyptian society and values on their head in the name of a new religious direction. He died seventeen years into his little-loved revolutionary reign and almost all the monuments and other buildings raised in the name of the Aten were torn down soon after.

Musically, Glass' score is, as ever, not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Out go the violins, in come scales and arpeggios which build to almighty crescendos. Glass' music is looping and repetitive and looping and repetitive and looping and very, very mesmerising as he takes us through this story of failed ambition and tragic love. As it reaches for the heights, it takes us with it into the clouds and beyond.

Phillip Glass' Akhnaten from 1985 is the third and most accessible of the minimalist composer's biographical triptych (the others being 1976's Einstein On The Beach and 1980's Satyagraha about Mahatma Gandhi) and in its current form is likely to be a recurring mainstay of the company's catalogue for as long as the ENO is around, such is its wide appreciation in the opera community and beyond.

This latest resurrection, led once more by the brilliant Anthony Roth Costanzo as the wise king, is still a gorgeous and imaginative visual feat that paints cinematic tableaux on the London Coliseum stage. McDermott makes fabulous use of the huge stage to create visual spectaculars through powerful imagery that sucks you in hook, line and sinker. When it comes to the set, designer Tom Pye and McDermott are clearly believers in everything, everywhere, all at once peppered with scenes more intense and intimate than a morning's first espresso. The maximalist episodes are on an epic scale, either spread over three concurrent levels or featuring immense props like the hanging sun seen during one gripping Costanzo solo. Adding to this rich panorama are the often-invigorating choreography of Sean Gandini's juggling troupe, Bruno Poet's evocative lighting and Kevin Pollard's detailed costumes. Trust me: your eyeballs will be thanking you for days.

There are some stellar singers in the cast, not least baritone Zachary James who, like Costanzo, has been a fixture of this particular take on Akhnaten; as the Scribe and, in the spoken coda, the Tourist Guide, he gives a towering performance in more than one sense: his website tells us "Zach is six and a half feet tall and does not play basketball". Almost exactly a year ago, ENO Harewood Artist Benson Wilson was an impressive Guglielmo in McDermott's Cosi Fan Tutte and here he again stands out as Horemhab, the noble who will end up destroying much of Akhnaten's legacy.

I saw countertenor Costanzo in cabaret mode last October alongside Justin Vivian Bond but, back in the day job, his naked form and piercing voice demands your attention from the off. He appears pale and slight when positioned next to James but exudes supreme dignity and inner strength. The duet with his queen Nerfetiti (American mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams) is given a spellbinding frisson as the pair circle each other and their long trailing robes become twisted around each other. Down in the pit, Glass expert Karen Kamensek pulls out all the stops in a punchy rendition of the classic score.

McDermott's use of jugglers here is different, but different doesn't always mean good. He often deploys them to dazzling effect, for example in a battle episode which sees clubs flying through the air. When the director slows down the action to "bullet time" levels, the jugglers help to expand on and highlight the implicit narrative elements but too often distract from, rather than enhance, the whole scene. Also, his use of nudity, while not eliciting any boos, is of minor consequence to both the political or personal thrust of the plot.

The current run of Akhnaten was almost completely sold out before the embargo on press reviews was lifted so I won't implore you to spend your hard-earned on booking a ticket to what is undoubtably one of the cultural highlights of 2023. Instead, if you've missed out on a ticket and are looking out forward to when the next London run is announced, spare a moment and sign the #LoveENO petition.

Akhnaten continues at the London Coliseum until 5 April.

Photo credit: Belinda Jiao


To post a comment, you must register and login.

Vote Sponsor