Much to admire in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at ENO

A scene from Satyagraha by Philip Glass @ London Coliseum. An English National Opera production. Directed by Phelim McDermott. Conductor, Carolyn Kuan. (Opening 14-10-2021) ©Tristram Kenton 10-21 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

In the past fifty years, avant-garde thinker, artist, composer, Philip Glass, has notched up thirty operas, three more than the prolific Verdi. It’s an amazing achievement for a contemporary living composer and there is no doubt that Glass’s minimalist scores have done much to break open the opera genre. 

It is only fitting therefore that English National Opera chose to open their 2021 season with Satyagraha, an opera Glass wrote in 1980. Borne from his lengthy admiration of India and its musical traditions, it focuses on India’s charismatic leader Mahatma Gandhi. 

This is no straight-forward staging of the political leader’s life . Philip Glass’s takes a non-linear route and focuses on the evolution of Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha. Satyagraha, derived from two Sanskrit words, meaning “truth” and “insistence”, was crucial to the development of Gandhi’s political thinking and came to mean non-violent resistance.

Two mentors played a part in Gandhi’s development – writer Leo Tolstoy and the philosopher and poet Tagore. Martin Luther King, meanwhile, was the embodiment of Gandhi’s legacy of peaceful resistance.

In performance all three men appeared in illuminated windows, writing at their desks, in the case of Tolstoy and Tagore, preaching at a rostrum, with King. Tellingly, not one of them emitted a sound on stage!

Staging and theatre craft had a huge part to play in this production. Phelim McDermott director of theatre company Improbable had his work cut out for him for Satyagraha’s libretto is not only in Sanskrit but a treatise of philosophical thought.

McDermott thankfully keeps it simple, leaving room for artistic fantasy. In many ways, Improbable and Glass are the perfect fit in the oblique and imaginative ways they both approach the subject.The stage filled with gigantic paper mâché puppets with enormous bobbing heads – one of whom was Gandhi. Truncated alligators, bulls were paraded up and down the stage to denote South Africa where Gandhi was living, and an elephant peered out of a stage window to suggest an Indian god. Skill artists flew around gracefully attaching lights. At times the activity threatened to detract from the vocals but for the most part Improbable worked seamlessly with the score. Materials such as newspaper, cellophane tape, and corrugated iron were used in a multitude of ways to denote poverty, oppression and entrapment. Most memorable was the ghostly, floating effigy of Gandhi, a presage of what was in store for the leader* 

And what of the music and vocals? I admit to being flummoxed by the cast singing in Sanskrit. A translated libretto in our opera programme (adapted from the text of Bhagavad Gita) was of no use without the support of surtitles which were absent. Excerpts in English projected on the stage helped a little.

In the end, it didn’t matter, for by then I was gripped by the singing and music. And maybe that is the point.

The quality of the singing did much to remedy the disconnect that might have occurred between audience and the main protagonists on stage. 

Sean Panikkar lived and breathed the magnificent role of Gandhi. He not only looked the part, limped like Gandhi in his white loincloth, but strangely sounded like Gandhi, his tender and smooth tenor at its most mesmerising in the Act 111 finale. 

Act 11, with its duets, trios, quintets, and sextets, sung by characters in Gandhi’s entourage, was the most compelling. Glass was at his best here, where traditional harmony and melody started to seep into the mesmeric, minimalistic mix. Soprano, Gabriella Cassidy, playing Miss Schlesen, impressed with her fiery outbursts of Wagnerian beauty. This was true of the orchestral parts too – where strings, flute and woodwind had gorgeously rich musical episodes. 

The ENO chorus were exceptional as usual, making light work of Glass’s challenging rhythms and repetitions and were much helped by conductor Carolyn Kuan, who did a magnificent job holding both artists and orchestra together.

When all is said and done, Satyagraha is an incredible musical and artistic feat – a little over the top in parts, but that’s what you get with geniuses – and Philip Glass most certainly is one. 

Well done to ENO for remaining at the cutting edge of opera. This has been a great way to start the season.

Satyagraha has 5 evening performances left at the London Coliseum : Oct 16, 20, 23, 27 and 28 at 7.00pm.  I afternoon performance Oct 17 at 15.00

Tickets start from £10 (plus booking fee)

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