Philip Glass’s Satyagraha was written partly in response to his own Einstein on the Beach and forms the middle part of a trilogy of operas (completed by Akhnaten).
Each examines a historical character whose personal vision profoundly shaped the age in which they lived in this case, Mohandas Gandhi in his South African period.
Derived from the Bhagavad Gita, the libretto is entirely in Sanskrit, with maxims and mantras in English intended not so much as translation as interpretation being projected across the stage.
The spectacular production is the work of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch from the Improbable theatre company. ‘Spectacular’ not in the manner of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, seen at ENO last year, but strikingly effective in its simplicity. The stage is lined by a semi-circular wall of corrugated iron, which opens doors on all sides to allow the slick movement of characters on and off, as well as containing cubbyholes for action high above the stage, and even flying apart to create jagged, unfriendly cityscapes.
Within this, as part of McDermott’s and Crouch’s concept, a 12-strong ‘skills ensemble’ is tasked with literally weaving and flying across the stage, mingling with the singers and threading newspaper and adhesive paper across the set to create the impression of walls and other obstacles. They also provide a mesmerising display of puppetry throughout, from creating living statues of the Hindu deities out of newspaper and baskets in the opening scene, to their absurdly grotesque parodies of unwelcoming and threatening Europeans in South Africa at the beginning of Act II.
Far and away the focus of the show, Alan Oke is outstanding as Gandhi, and not just for the uncanny visual resemblance (think Ben Kingsley, but better): he exudes a complete stillness and control of emotion and gesture that made his portrayal so utterly convincing, and his firm and piercing tenor (refreshingly audible in the lower register a legacy of Oke’s early career as a baritone) is always at the forefront of the sound, even when singing with the full chorus and orchestra.
For those as-yet-unconvinced who may be put off by Glass’s reputation as an arch-minimalist, this is the perfect opportunity to experience the rich possibilities of his sound-world. Fear not, either, about the language: the effect, even in the more aggressive scenes, is of a gentle, almost spiritual, wall of sound, and the unfussy staging ensures that even without surtitles the action can be understood at all times.
Glass’s intention was that the Sanskrit might serve as a unifying, ‘international language’ for all the performers, and it is from including the audience in this unfamiliar experience that the opera derives its emotional power: while it deals with the experiences that shaped Gandhi’s whole philosophy of non-violence, Satyagraha is not really a ‘thinking person’s opera’ rather, it has a simple message that is communicated most effectively by considered and considerate actions, without the need for words to complicate matters, and the exuberance of the final applause demonstrated conclusively that we in the audience had grasped that message.