Akhnaten by Philip Glass. English National Opera, The Coliseum, London WC2. 4**** Clare Colvin

Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, returning to the Coliseum 37 years after its UK premiere, now has a new generation of opera-lovers to enjoy its rich visual splendour. Glass is usually thought of as a minimalist in his repetitive and mesmerising themes, but the staging by director Phelim McDermott and the Improbable designing team, is a baroque masterpiece.

Akhnaten is known mainly as the philosophical Pharaoh who tried to convert Egypt from worshipping many gods to one single God, incarnated by the Sun. The people, driven by the priests, eventually rebelled. Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti, and six daughters were massacred and the Egyptians returned to their animal-headed gods, thus confirming the fact that rulers meddle with religion at their peril.

At the start, we see the newly dead Pharaoh being embalmed while his heir Akhnaten, with acclaimed counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo returning to the role, preparing for his coronation – first stripped naked and then re-clothed in sumptuous gold robes. Designer Tom Pye’s set provides space for design on three levels. At the top level what appears to be a frieze morphs into a troupe who accompany Glass’s encircling music with the perpetual rhythm of juggling balls.

There are dazzling set-pieces throughout the near-three hour evening. Akhnaten appears against a large shining disc as worshipper of the sun at the end of Act I and in Act 2 there’s a beautifully sustained love duet between Akhnaten and American mezzo Chrystal E. Williams as his wife Nefertiti, the pair clad in shimmering red. Act 3 sees the decline in their fortunes as they isolate themselves and their daughters into a claustrophobic pod. Finally the priests and people bite back. The Pharoah’s death, as Akhnaten is put to the sword is profoundly emotional. One hopes the Arts Council honchos will take note of the audience’s views.

Conductor: Karen Kamensek

Director: Phelim McDermott

Associate director: Peter Relton

Set and projection director: Tom Pye

Costume designer: Kevin Pollard

Lighting designer: Bruno Poet

Revival lighting designer: Gary James

Choreographer: Sean Gandini

Assistant conductors: Murray Hipkin, Olivia Clarke

Production pictures: Helen Hobson/

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