A sell-out run for its first outing in 2016, Phelim McDermott’s stunning production of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten - the last of the composer’s trilogy of ‘portrait’ operas in which he explores the lives of three great historical figures: Einstein (science), Gandhi (politics), Akhnaten (religion) - is a sell-out for its first revival, too.

ENO certainly hit the jackpot with this production by scooping the 2017 Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production no doubt helping to cement the relationship between Glass and ENO and putting this well-loved company back to where it deservedly belongs. In the top league! 

In fact, ENO not only presented the UK première of Akhnatenbut also The Perfect American, too, while Satyagraha (revived in February last year) received rave reviews with Chicago-born conductor Karen Kamensek (an expert on the work of Philip Glass) firmly in the pit. Gladly, she’s back once more at the London Coliseum (chalking up her third appearance at this iconic St Martin’s Lane theatre, the house that Stoll built) following on from Satyagraha and, of course, the original run of Akhnaten.

Incidentally, Ms Kamensek also premièred the composer’s Orphée in New York with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted the world première of Les Enfants Terribles at the Spoleto Festival.

The visual aspect of Akhnaten was breathtakingly beautiful with Tom Pye’s three-storeyed set, representing the royal palace, practical and visually pleasing in so many ways. Members of the Skills Ensemble of Improbable were projected as past Gods portrayed in the art and style of Ancient Egyptian wall-paintings on the upper level and ENO’s chorus, adding a simple juggling routine to their performance, found themselves joyfully in full voice in the middle tier whilst politics was at work at base level with Akhnaten holding court with his senior advisers. 

Lighting designer Bruno Poet (revival designer: Gary James) came up with a strikingly-rich, luminous-colour scheme of an ever-changing landscape seen from a variety of angles while Kevin Pollard created a good wardrobe. The outfit for Aye, Nefertiti’s father and senior advisor to the Pharaoh (the role so admirably sung by bass-baritone, Keel Watson) stood out. A black frock-coat with a skeleton’s head prominent on his top-hat was traditionally way off the mark but, nonetheless, fitted his character all the same while Akhnaten’s coronation robe was a wide-flowing garment bedecked with multi-coloured jewels as befitting his high-born status.


The performance skills of jugglers from the Gandini Juggling Company, led by master juggler, Sean Gandini, complemented the overall stage action so well offering the production an historical perspective, too, as the oldest-known depiction of juggling was found in wall-paintings of the Beni-Hassan tombs from the Middle Kingdom of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation depicting scenes of women jugglers, acrobats and dancers.

And the scenario of Akhnaten was sensitively brought to the fore by a range of texts drawn from ancient hymns, prayers, letters and inscriptions. And sung in their original language, Egyptian, Hebrew, Akkadia, it offered an authentic account to Glass’ mesmerising and intriguing score in a powerful and irresistible way.


American counter-tenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, reprised his role of Akhnaten (surely it belongs to him!) coming over as a rather weak but humble person attempting to change political matters in relation to his monotheistic viewpoint which, in the end, came to nothing. Maybe, not? 

Quietly (and strongly) supporting Akhnaten (portrayed as a hermaphrodite thereby embodying the strengths of both the feminine and masculine principles) in his political endeavours was Katie Stevenson as his wife Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone as his dutiful mother, Queen Tye. 

An ENO Harewood Artist, this production marked Ms Stevenson’s first principal role with the company since her ENO début in Nico Muhly’sMarnie in 2017. Her rich-sounding mezzo-soprano voice certainly made its mark and was heard to good effect against the high counter-tenor voice of Mr Costanzo while Ms Bottone (reprising her role of Queen Tye) sang her part so convincingly with her strong soprano voice radiating round the vastness of the Coliseum’s auditorium with consummate ease.

British baritone, James Cleverton - who first performed with ENO in 2009 singing Oppenheimer in Penny Woolcock’s iconic production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic- reprised his role of Horernhab adding more vocal weight to this invigorating and well-conceived production. He’s back at St Martin’s Lane next month (Saturday. 30th March, in fact) singing The Photographer in the world première of Iain Bell’s Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel.

Another fine British singer, Colin Judson, reprised his role as the High Priest of Amon putting in a solid performance and Zachary James - who created the role of Abraham Lincoln in the world première of The Perfect American- reprised his role, too, as the Scribe, delivering the English text-matter in a clear and articulate manner whilethe Six Daughters of Akhnaten - Martha Jones, Rosie Lomas, Angharad Lyddon, Elizabeth Lynch, Hazel McBain and Charlotte Shaw - put in fine performances, too. Really, there was not a weak link in the performing chain.

The opera begins ceremoniously with the death of Amenhotep III and the anointing of his son, Amenhotep IV - meaning ‘spirit of Amon’ - who later takes the name of Akhnaten - meaning ‘spirit of Aten’ - the Sun God. And one of the production’s significant values came in the scene of the Window of Appearances (framed by white neon light) where Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye make their pronouncements as the ever-changing colour of the rising sun stream into focus behind them.

And in praise of Akhnaten’s newfound religion, he orders the City of the Horizon of Aten (Akhetaten) to be built in his honour and a delicate moment surfaces when Mr Costanzo sings a private prayer culminating in Akhnaten’s vision of a new religion for a new society. 

After the creation of their new city and living with their Six Daughters in a close-knit family circle, Akhnaten and his wife drop into a reclusive lifestyle. Queen Tye becomes uneasy about the situation and senses unrest by the populace who are unhappy about their Pharaoh’s self-imposed isolation.

The High Priests of Amon charge the palace doorsto end this stalemate and Akhnaten’s daughters get mixed up in the swelling mob while Queen Tye and Nefertiti get separated in the confusion of the moment. And over a heavy repetitive muffled drum-beat (the rhythmic dance of death) the end comes for Akhnaten cutting short his reign while dumping his unpopular religious philosophy.

A collaboration by ENO with Improbable and a co-promotion with LA Opera, the ending of Akhnaten mirrors the beginning of the opera with the body organs of the old Pharaoh carefully removed and placed in canopic jars. The body is then embalmed and wrapped in a shroud while the Pharaoh’s heart is weighed against a feather. If it is as light as the feather, it will ensure that the soul’s journey to the afterlife will proceed calmly on its spiritual path. 

After Tutankhamen, the new Pharaoh, is crowned, he immediately restores the old polytheistic religion while the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye are heard murmuring from the ancient world with the final bars of Glass’ mesmerising score ending the opera in abeautiful, serene and dignified way.

Tony Cooper


Log on to to find out more


Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo)

Nefertiti (Katie Stevenson)

Queen Tye (Rebecca Bottone)

Horemhab (James Cleverton)

Aye (Keel Watson)

High Priest of Amon (Colin Judson)

The Scribe (Zachary James)

The Six Daughters of Akhnaten (Martha Jones, Rosie Lomas, Angharad Lyddon, Elizabeth Lynch, Hazel McBain and Charlotte Shaw)



    Akçaağaç Sok. Görhan Apt. No: 1/1A Acıbadem Üsküdar / İSTANBUL | T: 0216 325 27 13 | F: 0216 326 39 20