Philip Glass: Akhnaten, London English National Opera, 18 March 2016

My long, slow initiation into the world of opera continues, all of it so far through the music of Philip Glass. Following the overwhelming experience of Einstein on the Beach in London in 2012, and the intermittently fascinating but relatively minor The Lost in Linz a year later, last month I made a return trip to London for my first ever visit to the English National Opera. The occasion, of course, was the last night of the ENO’s new production of Akhnaten, the third part of Glass’s major trilogy of operas about historical figures. (At this rate I should be able to tick off the second part of the trilogy, Satyagraha, somewhere around 2020.)

Although the interior of the Coliseum was every bit as lavish as I had expected, it proved to be no match for the visually sumptuous staging of this opera. Phelim McDermott’s production swirled with inventive beauty, from the singers’ resplendent costumes to the rich set designs (which may have owed something to Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking Einstein staging), while the hypnotic work of the jugglers provided a stunning visual counterpoint to the rippling tides of Glass’s music. The chorus, meanwhile, presented a vaguely steampunk image that contrasted vividly with the Egyptian splendour elsewhere onstage. Having received with glum resignation the news that the chorus were planning to go on strike for the first act on the very night I had booked to see this thing, it was a huge relief to learn that the action was later suspended. Without them, the impact of the piece would have been greatly reduced.

The part of Akhnaten was sung with great expressiveness by Anthony Roth Costanzo. In keeping with the historical tendency to depict the ruler as androgynous, the character’s sexuality was indeterminate: his full (male) nudity during the coronation scene was undermined by later scenes in which, diaphonously clad, he appeared to be exhibiting female sexual characteristics. Adding to the indeterminacy was Costanzo’s countertenor voice. The countertenor appears to be something of a rarity in the operatic repertoire, but Costanzo’s reedy yet powerful voice was greatly impressive to this neophyte.

Equally impressive was Glass’s score, as blissful and romantic as any Glass I’ve heard. With no violins in the orchestra, but plenty of woodwind and brass, the soundworld steered clear of stridency and found deep lyrical softness in Glass’s ravishing melodies. The funeral scene in Act I, meanwhile, was powered by a tumultuous percussive throb that pitched the opera into moments of high, stirring drama.

Whereas Einstein on the Beach seemed to stretch out time itself, leading to an epic five-hour sweep that drew the viewer/listener ever closer towards the infinite, Akhnaten seemed to pack an extraordinary amount of incident and detail into its three acts. As a result the three-hour running time flew by; indeed, I frequently wished it had been longer. Sung mostly in Egyptian, the opera tells the tragic story of the pharaoh who abolishes the old polytheistic religion, introduces a new monotheistic one and is finally overthrown and killed by his own people. Thanks to the useful programme notes, the language barrier did not pose any particular problems. In any event, the narrative thread of the opera was never less than gripping, thanks to the otherworldly dream logic with which it proceeded towards its inevitable conclusion. And it was thrilling to see Glass himself join the cast onstage for a hugely deserved standing ovation at the end of this magnificent production.