Two anniversaries combined in this production of one of the most successful of Philip Glass’s 20 operas to date – the composers own 70th birthday, and the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. Both were sensitively treated in what was a lush, warmly coloured production from Phelim McDermott and the Improbable team.
Satyagraha was composed in 1980 and forms the second of a trilogy focusing on important figures from science, politics and religion, examining Mahatma Gandhi’s time in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. It also represents Glass’s first foray into orchestral writing, following the use of keyboards for Einstein On The Beach. The pit orchestra acquitted themselves admirably, for music as repetitive as this is difficult to perform with the unerring accuracy achieved here, the bright woodwind figures complementing insistent string loops.
The outstanding element of the show was the production. The stage was a semi-circular corrugated compound offering boundless possibilities with its opening sections, the lights cleverly framing the open windows and imaginative projections showing the libretto as all around it unfolded.
Also unfolding were hundreds of newspapers, whether opened by the cast or moulded creatively for use by a skills ensemble, giving vivid images of animals and distorted men. The use of corrugated iron and newspaper consciously tapped into the poverty associated with Gandhi, and the role of the Indian Opinion newspaper in the second act.
The chorus of the ENO gave a convincing performance of the Sanskrit text, though the nineteen strong male chorus at the start of Act 2 were consistently ahead of the orchestra as they mocked the opera’s central character. Played by Alan Oke, Gandhi exerted a strong stage presence from his opening appearance, a mellifluous tenor, effortlessly carrying over the orchestra.
The imaginatively employed skills ensemble leant strong characterization to each act, in particular the unspoken part given to Martin Luther King in the third act. At no point did Charlie Folorunsho face the audience, but gestured to imaginary disciples through the back of the stage while Oke sang an ode that was soothing yet with hidden power.
This was the crucial stage of the opera, an unbroken span of some fifty five minutes with potential for considerable flagging of momentum. Thanks to sensitive direction, reams of tape being rolled across the stage, and expert pacing from conductor Johannes Debus, the company pulled it off – just.
Elsewhere the music pressed forward with agility and purpose. The Vow, with which the first act ends, pushed its energetic musical sequence firmly into the mind, where it stayed for the entire interval. The duet between Gandhi’s wife Kasturbai (Anne-Marie Gibbons) and the Indian co-worker Mrs Naidoo (Janis Kelly) provided a weightless opening to the third act, beautifully accompanied by the orchestra. And the ending, though drawn out, found the meditative calm Glass was undoubtedly driving at in his music.
As a result the opera was a moving, calming experience, yet it transmitted an inner energy, rather like a meditation session – a power that should not be underestimated.