Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Akhnaten review: ENO triumphs with a sterling revival of Glass’ minimalist take on the sun-worshipping pharaoh

23 March 2023

Another sold out revival is proof why English National Opera must survive.


Akhnaten (Photo: Belinda Jiao)

It’s happened again, defying all operatic conventions – Philip Glass’ three hour meditative opera about the life of a little-known pharaoh has sold out for its latest run at ENO. That it’s impossible to get a ticket at London’s largest theatre for performances of an opera that’s sung in Hebrew, Akkadian and Egyptian, with no surtitles, is extraordinary. It’s testament to the tenacity of the company as it’s prepared to explore areas of the operatic repertoire where The Royal Opera won’t venture. ENO has carved out an audience for this kind of work, and to cast that aside on a whim from a group of ignoramuses at Arts Council England is nothing short of scandalous. And it seems even more depressing given ENO is currently on a roll – this is the third, successive five-star review I’ve awarded them. 

More solidly cast than the last revival in 2019, this current incarnation of Akhnaten is pretty well faultless. OK, the talented juggling troupe dropped the ball on occasion, but this was one of those rare evenings at the opera where all the individual elements – staging, singing, acting, and orchestral playing – coalesced into an organic whole to deliver a performance that was both mesmerising and breathtaking in equal measure.

Glass’ score, with its repetitive scales and arpeggios transports the listener into another realm. Not much happens, yet everything happens. Only at one point in the score, in the final act’s closing pages, did I think “OK, this could wrap up now”. Otherwise I was totally absorbed in a musical idiom that often beguiles, yet never bores. It’s worth pointing out that I’ve often lost the will to live in operas way shorter than this, which is testament to the hypnotic pull Glass’ music has on its audience.

Of course, Phelim McDermott’s innovative staging goes a long way to create an apt and engrossing theatrical accompaniment to Glass’ writing. Produced in conjunction with Improbable, and complete with ravishingly beautiful stage pictures thanks to Tom Pye (sets) Kevin Pollard (costumes) and Bruno Poet (lighting) the eye is enchanted throughout. Whereas some directors’ use of slo-mo (Robert Wilson) often frustrates and distracts, here it is one with the piece. The entire show really is a feast for the senses.

“…this is the third, successive five-star review I’ve awarded them”


Anthony Roth Costanzo & Chrystal E. Williams (Photo: Belinda Jiao)

Musically the evening was in the safe and experienced hands of conductor Karen Kamensek. She knows this score inside out, and it showed in the way in which the orchestra responded with accurate and impassioned playing. With no violins present, Glass’ score has a darkness that befits the subject matter, yet also has colour due to his interesting pairing of instruments. Whether listening to this score without the visual exuberance of this staging would have the same effect is debatable – thankfully ENO delivers on both fronts.

American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo returns to the title role, which he has sung whenever and wherever this production has been staged, and once again delivers a shattering performance – his otherworldly, voluminous tones having no trouble filling this cavernous theatre. It’s hard to imagine any other singer filling his shoes – his interpretation is a phenomenal tour de force.

The supporting cast is stronger than ever, especially Jolyon Loy (Aye), Paul Curievici (High Priest of Amon) and Benson Wilson (Horemhab) whose contributions, whether singing alone or together, were vivid and engrossing. Similarly, Chrystal E. Williams (Nefertiti) and Haegee Lee (Queen Tye) were both thrillingly voiced. Like Costanzo, Zachary James’ Scribe has been a constant in this staging, and once again he proved to be the bedrock of the performance, a towering figure, both literally and dramatically.

As mentioned earlier, the entire run is now sold out – but ENO are releasing a handful of standing places for each performance, so grab them when they become available. This exemplary revival can’t be missed.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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