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THE final chapter in Philip Glass’s portrait opera trilogy based on the lives of individuals who have changed their age – begun with Einstein on the Beach (1976), about Albert Einstein, and followed by Satyagraha (1980), about Gandhi – Akhnaten (1983) focuses on the sun-worshipper pharaoh who adopted the name in homage to Aten, the sun’s disc in Egyptian mythology.
Revived from the hit 2016 production directed by Phelim McDermott, this spectacular return also sees five of the original cast resume their roles including the awe-inspiring counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, the imposing 6ft 6in giant Zachary James as the scribe and soprano Rebecca Bottone as Akhnaten’s mother Queen Tye.
Widely seen as the most accessible of the trilogy, Akhnaten is something of a ritualistic masterpiece based on original Egyptian, Hebrew and Akkadian inscriptions, hymns and prayers that are meant to be heard, not necessarily understood. And this is never a chore as the music itself is astonishingly good. Egyptologist Shalom Goldman, who advised Glass, described the work as “singing archaeology” on account that the libretto relies heavily on these historical texts.
The opera in three acts is notable too for its dark bassy tones, due in part to the absence of violins in the string section and its heavy use of minor keys and dissonance.
This production is also famed for its ensemble of remarkable jugglers, who carry out their varied routines across the three floors of Tom Pye’s scaffold-esque set. As random as this might at first appear, juggling has been depicted in ancient Egyptian murals and the balls are thought, as many spherical and circular objects were, to be symbols of the sun. This symbolism is made apparent as, on the final fall of Akhnaten, the jugglers all purposefully drop their balls as his world, the sun, comes crashing down around him.
Akhnaten is an inspirational work and this production is truly a feast for both ears and eyes.
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