It’s hard to think of a composer in all music history who has built so big a career from so small a talent as Philip Glass. And that being the case, it was with guilty pleasure that I watched Glass’s new Akhnaten. It was not because of the score, which exemplifies the worst of his style in its banal, arpeggiated sequences, with running scales like a Grade I piano exercise for children, but because the show is visually sumptuous.
Akhnaten is notionally about a Pharaoh who invented monotheism in ancient Egypt, but it’s devoid of incident or action, which I guess is why the ENO production doesn’t bother you with surtitles. There’s nothing in the text worth taking note of: it’s just monosyllables and phony Cecil B DeMille-type biblicism, best ignored. But its protracted spans of epic nothingness are an invitingly blank canvas for imaginative stage direction. And the blanks are filled here brilliantly by Phelim McDermott with his own physical-theatre company, Improbable.
He choreographs slow, collective, ritualistic movement from the chorus and assorted extras – principally a juggling team whose synchronised activities provide a visual analogue for the repeated, tension-building circularity of Glass’s music. Watching them becomes an exercise in mindfulness.
The amazing costumes, though, are distracting – more like Vivienne Westwood party-wear than anything you’d find under a pyramid. Extravagant, exuberant and camp.
The fruitily voiced countertenor in the title role, Anthony Roth Costanzo, has the most dazzling apparel of all (but pays for it by spending his first 10 minutes on stage naked). The lighting is spectacular. And the whole thing is a fabulous confection of allure that can only be resisted by a pinched soul. But confectionary is what it is. And how the conductor Karen Kamensek manages to keep her orchestra awake throughout the unfolding hours of scales, arpeggios and synthetic emptiness defeats me.
Woodhouse Copse, the intimately charming music centre in a Surrey garden close to Dorking, runs an annual Baroque Academy where young singers work on early opera; and for 2016 it was Lully’s Armide, a staid work, saturated with French tragic grandeur and dance numbers according to the formulae that suited the court of the royal balletomane Louis IX.
For this small-scale staging all the dances were excised, leaving a simple, sung performance with the minimum of action. For a stripped-down show it was impressively well done. But most impressive was the fact that Stephanie Gurga, who directed from the keyboard, also filled in for a singer who had lost her voice. As multi-tasking goes, it was beyond the call of duty, but it saved the day.