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A Glass act to follow

Astonishing, mesmerising, exhilarating, that’s the English National Opera revival of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at the London Coliseum

22 February, 2019 — By Sebastian Taylor

Katie Stevenson, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Rebecca Bottone in Akhnaten

IT’S an unlikely storyline, the life and times of an early Egyptian Pharaoh who’s counted as the first monotheist, a sun worshipper, in history.

But the story of Akhnaten is brilliantly told in Phelim McDermott’s astonishing English National Opera production with evolving tableaux of 10 jugglers, each throwing up and catching four balls at precisely the same time.

The jugglers strike a great contrast with the slow-moving set pieces involving Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti and the chorus of courtiers.

Visually, it’s theatrically dramatic, with much use made of magnificent red gowns, huge golden suns and funerary ceremony. Dressing and undressing of Akhnaten is done at a snail’s pace while the juggling becomes more and more energetic.

Musically, the endless repetition of Glass’s arpeggios should be boring in the extreme. But it becomes more and more mesmerising under the baton of Karen Kamensek as the performance slowly proceeds.

There’s an ebb and flow to the arpeggios in endlessly changing keys that increasingly insinuate themselves into your ears, growing in intensity if not charm.

Singing is exhilarating, particularly counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo dominating the production with his falsetto Akhnaten.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Stevenson is just as admirable as Akhnaten’s wife Nefertitti. Their Act Two duet is the undoubted high point of the opera. They look the perfect picture of love in their huge red gowns.
Their falsetto and mezzo voices become more and more intertwined against the backdrop of Glass’s arpeggios surging ever-onwards crashing like huge waves on the shore.

• Akhnaten is at the London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, WC1, 7.30pm on February 21, 23, 28 and March 7, and at 6.30pm on March 2. 020 78425 9300,


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