The ENO's production of Akhnaten is a ritual, reflective, near-liturgical experience
Something about Philip Glass I’ve learned over the years is that by asking very little of his music you can sometimes be surprised by what you get. His endlessly repeating, “minimalist” processes of up-and-down arpeggios and simple harmonies are technically banal and brutal. But stop analysing, try accepting, and it’s possible to find in them a glowing innocence that’s tantamount to spiritual grandeur. And it justifies Akhnaten, his slow-moving, sort of spiritual 1980s opera playing currently at ENO.
Ostensibly a period romp set in the swords-and-sandals world of ancient Egypt, “romping” isn’t quite the word for something that more accurately crawls. To nowhere. There’s a narrative of sorts about Akhnaten – an Egyptian pharaoh and innovative thinker who came up with the idea of monotheism – abandoning the crowded hierarchies of old Egyptian gods and laying down a precedent for Jews and Christians. But essentially this opera is a ritual, reflective, near-liturgical experience – spectacularly staged at ENO in a Phelim McDermott production that plays like Cirque du Soleil choreographing High Mass at the Vatican.
Cohorts of jugglers carry out elaborate ceremonies in a visual analogue of those repeating patterns in the score. And dazzling costumes indicate how ancient Egypt might have looked had it been dressed by Zandra Rhodes with the exuberance of glam rock.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has arresting presence and astonishing projection in the title role. And conductor Karen Kamensek fulfils her chief requirement, which is keeping everybody in the pit awake and counting, in their effort not to be surprised when 97 repetitions of the same bar must come to an abrupt stop. Glass’s standard practice.
The surprise in Simon Rattle’s Barbican concert with the LSO last week was to hear the orchestra become a French baroque band – playing parts of Rameau’s colourful Les Indes galantes, complete with rattling chains (in music that’s a cheerful evocation of exotic slavery). But its a trick they’ve done before and handle with panache. And it began an all-French programme that continued with Ravel and the American-French Betsy Jolas, who (somewhat belatedly) is a discovery for British audiences at the age of 92. Her Little Summer Suite showed quirky charm; and she was there to hear it, elegantly played and well-received.
I’m not so sure about Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto, for which the orchestra sounded too English and the soloist Daniil Trifonov too Russian (as well as too slow in the middle movement, though there’s no denying he’s a class act). But the same composer’s La Valse showed the LSO at its virtuosic best. Always a showstopper, it’s as well it came at the end of the programme. Because you couldn’t have followed it.