18 March 2016

Akhnaten at ENO was magnificent, as expected


There are very few things that I want to see more than a Philip Glass opera and, of those, Akhnaten is one that I am most keen to see. So much so that last year I went to Ghent to see a production.

So when I heard that ENO were staging it in London I leaped to buy tickets for the whole family. They were the best seats too, in the front row of the Dress Circle. These had a cover price of £115 but, for some reason, I was only charged £80.5 for two of the five tickets so the damage was slightly less than it could have been.

The five of us were arriving from separate directions, and some of us needed to eat, so we booked a table at the nearby Pizza Express for 6:15pm and, with only a couple of minor hiccoughs, everybody managed to find the place. PE, as we have called it for years, lived up to its usual non-express standard and it took some earnest cajoling of staff to get the bill and using their app to pay it to get out of there in time. But we did and the food was as good as always so that part of the evening was fine.

Our Dress Circle seats were every bit as good as I hoped and the view was terrific. All we could see initially was a multi-coloured safety screen and while I took a picture of that the one I took of the curtain call at the end was far better as showing what my view was like.

The photo also reveals that the stage was arranged on three levels. It is an approach I had seen used a few times before and it works very well in a production like this which has a large chorus on stage a lot of the time as they can be seen clearly too which would not have been the case had they been squeezed in at the back of the stage.

The costumes were a mix of mostly Ancient Egypt with a touch of Victorian England to reflect the time Akhnaten ruled and when the ancient tombs were rediscovered. The rest of the production was a healthy mix of ancient and modern and that was a healthy balance between when the story happened and when it was told. In many ways it was a "traditional" telling, if a new opera can have a tradition, except for the jugglers; these are the people at the back at the stage level.

The jugglers were used throughout the opera and what may have started as a wacky idea over a glass of wine turned out to be a compelling feature. Phil Glass' music consists of short phrases that are repeated many time while being gradually modified. The juggling reflected this with its own phrases and changes. What could have been a circus gimmick was actually a brilliant physical representation of the music. I particularly liked the way that the juggling started to fall apart, with balls being dropped. as Akhnaten's world fell apart.

That music, the main point of the opera, was wonderful. As far as I could tell, the words and music were just as in the original production, i.e. the version that I have on CD, whereas the version I saw last year had played around with the languages (admittedly this was in Belgium). The singing was excellent too, soloists and chorus. I was nodding my head and (quietly) tapping my feet to the music throughout. I was also constantly smiling with pleasure.

It was a phenomenal evening and the three hours flew passed fuelled only by one ice cream during the second interval.

Just when I thought that the evening could not get any better, Philip Glass himself came on to the stage for the final curtain call and the noise in the audience got even louder. I was not the only person who whooped. I only hope that other opera houses were listening to the adulation, and paying attention to the ticket sales, so that we might get more Glass operas in the future.

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