This is Philip Glass’s third biographical opera following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (about Gandhi). This time the subject is Akhnaten, the Egyptian pharaoh noted for replacing Egypt’s traditional polytheistic belief system with worship of Aten, the sun, ushering in a new age of monotheistic belief.
Akhnaten is an interesting and unusual choice of subject. Not exactly a household name, the ancient setting allows the lines to be blurred between history and mythology.
The show begins with a sequence so elaborate, epic and engrossing it could be the finale, and it then continuously out-does itself. The effort that’s been put into staging and direction is phenomenal with the large cast precisely coordinated on a stage filled with sun-based imagery and dazzling costumes.
Unusually it makes extensive use of juggling, which just like the graceful repeating patterns of Einstein’s dances, manages to be a remarkably apt physical embodiment of Glass’s music. I was frequently worried someone would drop a ball and the whole thing would descend into chaos, which is ironic since I assume juggling is easier to perfect than opera singing and I wasn’t concerned that anyone would hit a wrong note.
While still often abstract it employs more obvious narrative logic than Einstein, following what we know of Akhnaten’s life even if it’s not always obvious what’s happening purely from the events onstage (hardly a new phenomenon for opera).
The music is similar to Glass’s soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi and while it may not be as ground-breaking or iconic as his finest work, it successfully creates an almost trance-like atmosphere which, when combined with ancient Egyptian texts, passages from the Old Testament and non-verbal vocalisations, results in an experience bordering on religious fervour. Here the music is a soundtrack to a story whereas in Einstein the music is the star, exemplified by Einstein himself appearing as a violinist.
While it shares Einstein’s slow choreography (with the exception of the juggling), there’s often far more happening at any given time, with action on the multi-tiered stage providing plenty of choice for what to focus on.
Anthony Ross Costanzo, who takes the lead role, is a rare countertenor, singing close to the range of his contralto bride adding a surprising androgyny to the part. The wonderful lead performance was such a gruelling physical challenge that Costanzo ended up becoming an advocate of electric muscle stimulation. The supporting performances are also superb, in particular from Katie Stevenson as Nefretiti and Zachary James as the scribe/narrator.
The end result is an Egyptian epic that brings more excitement and visual spectacle to a stage than Alex Proyas managed in the whole of Gods of Egypt and will make you say hurrah for Ra. The one thing missing was Charlton Heston, who could add an 11th commandment to watch this opera while you can.