I went to see Akhnaten over a month ago, on Thursday 17th March. After a tough month I was so desperate to see it that I paid up the last of my month’s wages for a same-day returned ticket that cost me a good deal more than I’ve ever paid for a single ticket in my life.
There are a number of reasons. Firstly, Akhnaten is very rarely performed. Its last London staging was over 30 years ago in 1984. Unless fashions change it’s down to luck whether I will have the chance to see this work performed again in my lifetime Secondly I was driven to support the ENO in their moment of crisis. There however were nothing compared to a burning curiosity I had to understand more about the music and vision of Philip Glass. Glass is a composer who, along with a handful of others, pioneered and developed the sub-genre ‘minimalism’. Minimalism and Glass’s ideas have infiltrated and influenced the basis of today’s music – pop, classical, jazz, film and soundtracks alike – more than anybody ever could have predicted they would when they first caused such uproar in the 1970s-80s.
For those readers are non-theorists, in the next two paragraphs follows a brief ( (and therefore imperfect) description of minimalism in music.
Minimalism came as part of a wave of ‘reactive’ musical forms that mushroomed in the 20th century, as composers decided that everything expressible with the familiar form and structure of Western classical music as it was had indeed been expressed. Seeking to find new things to ‘do’ with music and new ways to convey ideas and emotions composers attempted various fundamental alterations to the Western Classical Music system. Some deconstructed the scale or familiar tones on which it is based (Schonberg’s Serialist/12-tone technique, atonal music), others dramatically altered the roles of composers and performers in the creative process of deciding what notes to play (‘graphic scores’, Ligeti, Stockhausen). Another approach questioned the concept of what could be considered a musical instrument (John Cage’s ‘Prepared Piano’, Hoffung’s Concerto for three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher). Minimalism’s contribution was, on the surface, less radical in some ways than these other examples, but arguably has had a more far-reaching and fundamental impact upon musical aesthetics in the 20th Century and beyond. Minimalism works by targeting principles of structure in music – from the micro level of the structure of melodies, to the larger structure of a suite or ‘symphonic’ piece, to the macro scale. Let’s say, the structure of an opera.
Minimalism is so called because it is characterised by repetition of small melodic, harmonic or rhythmic fragments with small but usually increasing variations to the repeated fragment. One effect is that, as a gross generalisation, the harmony in music tends to progress more gradually (slower harmonic rhythm) than in typical art music– but this does not necessarily mean that the music or piece has a slower emotional or intellectual development. This potential is something very fully explored in this exceptional production of Glass’s Akhnaten. In this way, Glass’s work often shifts the relationship between the main features of music – melody, harmony, and rhythm – inverting their importance or driving power in relation to one another. It is his rhythms and harmonies principally that create the haunting, and that stick in ones head long after their first hearing. Glass and his minimalist colleagues are not people who write ‘tunes’ you can sing along to.
All this is the basis of my fascination. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Like a sinner entering a church for the first time, so I approached Akhnaten.
The production at ENO is a collaboration between the English National Opera itself and LA Opera. Starring the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, the production uses fantastical lighting techniques combined with historically informed costume, movement and direction choices that are glazed with the glamour of a knowing orientalism.
The opening music is played over a mesmerising iridescent backdrop that shimmers, imperceptibly changing from green to copper to gold and through marbled combinations of the three through some unperceived technical wizardry. The subtle glowing effect was spoiled for me by harsh white, modernist geometrical projections of vaguely hieroglyphic shapes on top of this screen. As the only clean lines and projections of the entire production they were jarringly out of place. Although I spent the rest of the time trying to fathom the context they were supposed to fit with, I conclude that the producers were not brave enough to allow the music to speak for itself in this overture passage and added them to spoon-feed or ‘occupy’ the audience, which is a great shame.
Nonetheless the use of light throughout the opera performance itself was commendable. Glow-tubes were used in a particularly imaginative and enhancing way in the scene ‘The Window of Appearances’, exuding confidence in the audience’s ability to parse meaning from the kaleidoscopic array of symbols, representations and possibilities presented to them by the cast and crew.
The movement of all actors, and particularly the chorus, was cleverly stylised. Costumes and postures directly evoked Ancient Egyptian paintings and characters. The crucially important ENO Opera Chorus was supplemented by the presence of jugglers, coordinated by Sean Gandini, whose work with variously sized white balls provided a visualisation both of the rhythm and pace of Glass’s music, but also of its structure through measured and coordinated display. Happily it is also historically consistent with the Egyptological stylisation, since the first archaeological evidence of toss juggling in fact comes from Ancient Egypt.
Apart from the consistent movement of the juggling balls, all physical action in this production of Akhnaten is paced with creeping intensity. All actors move in ultra slow motion at all times, which results in a peculiarly hypnotic effect. Just as one watches a child growing day by day, it seems as if little or nothing is happening, only for the theatre-goer to realise abruptly that whilst they have been focusing on one area of the stage the entire scene has completely changed. This kinetic effect also cleverly follows the pattern of minimalist music, which develops gradually in minute and sometimes barely perceptible ways to create dramatic and varying emotional and intellectual states.
Roth Costanzo has a truly unique voice. Seething with drama, he has an air-curdling tone that he renders intentionally thin and cutting for much of this performance. Roth Costanzo is an erudite but passionately human performer who really draws his audience into his world. His portrayal of Akhnaten was bold and complex. He fully embodies this man’s belief in his absolute power, whilst throughout simultaneously revealing his palpable frailty and mortality. Although I admire Roth Costanzo immensely I did feel his tone occasionally needed more colour and breadth in the trios to blend and mingle better with the esoteric voices of his two female co-star companions. That said, there was truly exciting chemistry and dynamism between Roth Costanzo, Emma Carrington as Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye.
Carrington brings to Nefertiti a full-bodied womanly voice, the depth and resonance of which contrasted wonderfully with the androgynous Akhnaten, making for spellbinding duet and trio work between the two. Glass scored the characters to have a similar vocal range (tessitura/pitch), which processes the unity of the characters as historical figures. The tensions of the dissonances and consonances between the parts is sweetened and heightened by the singers’ differences in vocal tone (timbre), which is especially exciting as their political and sexual relationship plays out in their mesmerising Love Duet.
As Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye, Bottone provides the stand-out characterisation of the production from an acting perspective. Whilst having some of the most demanding vocal lines in the entire piece Bottone pitches her role well, never overpowering the other two lead characters. She is required to emote and move the audience through micro-expression and minimal movements in both death scenes of the pieces, and successfully provides a great deal of the production’s emotional charisma.
This production of Akhnaten juxtaposes human nakedness and the insinuation thereof with opulence and power. Most costumes for the Pharoah and his Queen are translucent, revealing their bodies as a constant reminder of their humanity. However, like some of the other symbolic work in this production, by the end I felt it was overused. The allusion to nakedness continued in scenes even where the reminder of humanity was less central to the tensions or themes of the scene, such as in Akhnaten’s Sun Aria in Act 2. As a result, by the final act in which Akhnaten is overthrown by his people, the potence of this visual cue was greatly reduced, although still salient enough to be moving. Similarly, the juggling was possibly somewhat overdone. I was particularly disappointed at the end when the balls, which represented Akhnatens religious empire and political reign fell more than once. Surely, this should have been the one point at which the production should have curtailed their theme of developed repetition?
THE GAME CHANGER
Visually fantastic, technically excellent and musically exceptional, this production of Akhnaten is as artistically important as it was enthralling to watch. My minor criticisms of thematic work are personal opinion, and did not affect the fact that this is one of the most incredible works of art I have ever had the honour of experiencing. Glass has changed the musical landscape of the world forever with this piece, even though it is performed so rarely, and this production has set a benchmark for others both within this genre and out of it. I hope it will not be 30 years before it returns to London again.
The Glory of Anthony Roth Costanzo: