29 years ago, Andrew - in another attempt to introduce me to opera - got me a standing ticket for Philip Glass' AKHNATEN which was receiving it's UK debut at the Coliseum by the English National Opera. He had praised it to the skies and, well, there was nothing on the telly... and it *was* a free ticket! I had no idea what I was going to see as the lights went down...
About three hours later I literally staggered out of the Coliseum with my mind spun-round by Glass' swirling, repetitive, hypnotic score which has looped and re-looped in my mind down the years. This hit it's apogee when, visiting the Temple at Karnak in the 2000s, we found we were practically the only ones in the awesome Hypostyle Hall during the intense mid-day sun. I parked myself at the foot of one of the massive pillars in the shade and, while Owen wandered about taking photos, I sat quite happily listening to the AKHNATEN finale on my mini-disc. To this day I am sure I saw shadows dancing....
And now, 29 years after that premiere, English National Opera have staged a new production, well I had to go didn't I?
Sadly whereas the first production directed by Keith Warner did everything it could to frame the music, Phelim McDermott's production does all it can to stand in it's way.
Tom Pye's design was an immediate cause for concern - I could see he was probably going for the tiered design of a wall of hieroglyphics but sadly more often that not it looked like the rebel Pharaoh's story was being acted out on the scaffolding of a building site. The palace which featured on the stage level did not so much suggest the palace of a King as a pop-up Hoxton bar with it's clear corrugated walls and strip-lighting.
Only once did we get a break from this set-up which was when the set split in two for Akhnaten's Hymn to his beloved Sun or Aten. Sadly this reminded me more of a mash-up of WEST SIDE STORY's tenements splitting aside for the "Somewhere" dream ballet and revisiting Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project at Tate Modern - maybe they should have asked Eliasson to do it? ! I did like Bruno Poet's lighting however.
Again and again, one was distracted by the LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME design choices: the daughters of Nefertiti and Akhnaten resembled a Divine tribute act while, as Andrew has suggested, it was intriguing that the inspiration for Nefertiti's look was Marge Simpson. Oh and Queen Tye, Akhnaten's supportive mother, was modeled on Queen Mary. Go fuckin' figure.. Akhnaten death is still shrouded in mystery but I - no Egyptian scholar admittedly - don't believe he met his death in a volumous plastic tarpaulin. I am happy to be pursuaded otherwise...
McDermott's biggest artistic choice was to include his company Improbable in the production... this meant that every scene involved most of the company juggling. McDermott is happy to show in the programme an Egyptian tomb painting of a troupe of girls juggling to justify this but again it distratcted attention from the score as you waited in each act for the juggling to begin. Don't get me wrong, sometimes it made for interesting viewing but if it went on for too long it just felt like being in the audience for BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT. I have to report getting an attack of the church giggles when the acrobats came running out with large beach ball-type sphericals... I was so hoping they would break into "Sur Le Plage" from THE BOYFRIEND.
Not so much Improbable as Inevitable.
The lead performances were by Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, the Pharoah who attempted to jolt Ancient Egypt into having a monotheistic religion and failed disasterously, Emma Carrington as Queen Nefertiti, Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye and Zachary James as the narrator Scribe but to be honest, their performances seemed to take second place to being careful not to be whonged over the head by a flying candlestick or ball.
Luckily the evening was saved by the ENO chorus who sounded quite wonderful - and well done on the resolution of their pay dispute - and the orchestra under the baton of Karen Kamensek who made Philip Glass' monumental score the real star of the show. Hypnotic threads of repetitive music swirled around the auditorium and swept me away again to a different headspace.
Despite the clunking production I am glad to have experienced AKHNATEN again - now where the HELL has my cd of it gone?