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Philip Glass’s Akhnaten returns to the London Coliseum

Philip Glass’s Akhnaten returns to the London Coliseum

Philip Glass’s Akhnaten returns to the London Coliseum
February 13
05:41 2019

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In writing his three operas on historical figures — Einstein, Gandhi, Akhnaten — Philip Glass put himself firmly on the operatic map. He also connected with an audience that the rest of the opera repertoire cannot reach.

English National Opera’s production of his Gandhi opera, Satyagraha, was such a critical and box office success that it was no surprise the company followed up with Akhnaten two years ago. This revival already looks one of the best sold operas of the current season.

The show is like Cirque du Soleil goes to the opera. It was an obvious move to entrust Akhnaten to theatre company Improbable, which had delivered such a mesmeric production of Satyagraha, and the production’s visual language both complements Glass’s timeless style of minimalism and connects niftily with ancient Egyptian motifs. Serried ranks of the ensemble are arranged like rows of hieroglyphs. The jugglers of Gandini Juggling perform intricate routines, as though figures in the ancient sculptures have come to life. The sun god blazes in golden splendour.

It all looks good, but feels like the husk of an opera, deadeningly empty. If ENO’s Akhnaten is less successful than Satyagraha, that is as much down to the work as the staging of it. In his Gandhi opera, Glass was celebrating humanitarian ideals across the generations and tapped into deeper feelings and richer music. Akhnaten is rooted in ritual and that has resulted in desert-like stretches of music with no relief on the horizon. Perhaps it was inevitable that Phelim McDermott’s production for Improbable would also be the less richly imaginative of the two, just enough to hold the interest through to the end, without being able to hide the overlong stretches of repetition on the way.

Gandini Jugglers feature in ‘Akhnaten’ © Jane Hobson

Most of the cast for this revival are returning from the first time round. Anthony Roth Costanzo sings Akhnaten with a penetrating countertenor that can fill the theatre. Katie Stevenson, Rebecca Bottone, James Cleverton, Keel Watson and Colin Judson make up an able team, and Karen Kamensek conducts an ENO orchestra that has to wrestle with the score’s mind-bending reams of arpeggios. Glass’s admirers are guaranteed a visually splendid show. For anybody else, it sometimes feels as if dynasties could rise and fall before the final curtain.

★★★☆☆

To March 7, eno.org

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