Philip Glass
Satyagraha – Opera in three acts
[Libretto by Constance De Jong, adapted from the text of the “Bhagavada Gita”; Book by Philip Glass and Constance De Jong; Sung in Sanskrit]

M.K. Gandhi – Alan Oke
Miss Schlesen – Elena Xanthoudakis
Mrs Naidoo – Janis Kelly
Kasturbai – Anne Marie Gibbons
Mr Kallenbach – Ashley Holland
Parsi Rustomji / Lord Krishna – James Gower
Mrs Alexander – Jean Rigby
Prince Arjuna – Robert Poulton

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Johannes Debus

Phelim McDermott – Director
Julian Crouch – Associate director / Set designer
Kevin Pollard – Costume designer
Paule Constable – Lighting designer
Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer – Video design

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 April, 2007
Venue: The Coliseum, London

‘Scales and arpeggios’ is a song heard in the 1970 Disney film “The Aristocats” – a ditty, if I recall, which hardly features those two basic musical ingredients but which form the very stuff and substance and Philip Glass’s music.

“Satyagraha” is the second of Glass’s trilogy of ‘portrait operas’ featuring men whose ideas have changed mankind’s thinking: “Einstein on the Beach” (science), “Satyagraha” (politics) and “Akhnaten” (religion). It has taken 27 years for “Satyagraha” to receive a London staging and English National Opera must be congratulated for marking the composer’s 70th-birthday with this marvellous staging.

Satyagraha (first staged in Rotterdam in 1980) was, in fact, Glass’s first ‘conventional’ opera – deploying the resources of a ‘standard’ opera house in terms of soloists, chorus and orchestra. “Einstein on the Beach” (1976), for example, featured the composer’s own Ensemble as the accompaniment along with singers, dancers and speakers delivering a scenario which might, at best, be described as ‘abstract’.

“Satyagraha” does not present an on-going narrative – though this production certainly suggested a credible ‘story’ – rather, its seven scenes (with one exception) serve as a kind of meditation upon particular historical events in the early life of Mahatma Gandhi whose experiences as a lawyer in South Africa is the opera’s subject matter. The libretto is derived from the “Bhagavada Gita” – a poem concerned with the teachings and musings of Krishna, which Gandhi is known to have studied and quoted. It dates from around the third and fourth centuries BC, but its sayings have not lost their relevance – suggesting, sadly, that the behaviour of human beings across millennia has barely changed.

Glass opted – most daringly – to set the words in the original Sanskrit and thus present an immediate ‘obstacle’ to an audience’s understanding as to what, exactly, is being sung. Whilst occasionally in this production key phrases are ‘projected’ in English across the set (not as surtitle translations), much of what is heard is, in effect, unintelligible. (In fact, no surtitles are in use in ENO’s production.) Is there a precedent for this in Western music? I believe there is. Carl Orff set the original Greek of Aeschylus in his “Prometheus”, first staged in Stuttgart in 1968, and whilst I do not know whether Philip Glass is aware of this and other Orff stage-works there are, nevertheless, some striking musical similarities. Repetition, ostinatos and re-iteration of vocal phrases (though Glass’s are generally more lyrical than Orff’s) are common features.

Co-incidentally it is Achim Freyer’s 1981 Stuttgart staging of “Satyagraha” that is preserved on DVD [Arthaus Musik 100 136], though this production is very different from the scenario imagined by the composer or that presented by ENO. Phelim McDermott and his colleagues belong to the group “Improbable”.

“Satyagraha” is Improbable’s first opera production and very effective it is, too. A corrugated iron surround forms the backdrop to the action, with openings in the walls that reveal figures, animals and objects. Another constant feature of this staging is newspaper – tellingly recalling that Gandhi’s ideas – and the objections to them – were disseminated via this medium. From time to time, giant papier-mâché creations emerge – most strikingly, perhaps, in the opening scene – which depicts a mythical battle between two royal families. The creatures – manipulated by stilt-dancers – played out the fight in a most convincing and visually evocative manner.

Throughout, one sensed the stage-pictures as being apposite reflections of the texts and the given scenarios. This is, in fact, consistently a most intelligent realisation of the libretto. It is gratifying to experience a production which does not set out to negate or contradict the intentions of the composer, but rather to illuminate them and, as a consequence, provide some beautiful – if at times provocative – images.

The cast can hardly be faulted, from Alan Oke’s touching portrayal of the central character, with a plangent tenor suggesting, with the aid of Glass’s music, an essential inner loneliness. The final scene with Gandhi alone was terribly poignant, though the singer’s contribution is ‘merely’ a ‘simple’ modal scale. Along with James Gower’s sturdy bass and Janis Kelly’s expressive soprano – soaring ecstatically to the heights on occasions – the team of soloists is a fine one.

For such a demanding score (not to mention the learning of the libretto), this was a remarkably blemish-free performance. I detected only a single stray flute note in the final act and a couple of early entries from the women soloists in the second scene of Act One. There were one or two moments where co-ordination momentarily faltered, but these were insignificant when set against the remarkable cohesion of the whole.

The orchestra’s contribution was, frankly, unimpeachable. Christopher Keene, the conductor of the New York City Opera recording (CBS, now on Sony), in a television interview asserted that, as far as conventional orchestral players are concerned, “Phil’s music drives you nuts”. The ENO Orchestra musicians did not convey any sense of hesitation or insecurity in a musical style that is hardly one they are used to, to say the least. The chorus was most impressive with contributions executed most convincingly. Johannes Debus conducted with complete authority, sometimes taking daringly slow tempos, such as at the start of Act Three, eliciting an almost stasis-like sense from the two-part texture of a single string line accompanying a solo voice.

Whilst I am more than prepared to be corrected, texturally speaking I believe this performance followed that adopted on the CBS recording supervised by the composer. This involved some cuts, which reduce the number of direct repetitions in certain passages. The Stuttgart performance, mentioned earlier, does not observe these. One must assume Glass has no objection to this in staged performances, given he was in attendance and received a very warm ovation from a full house.

This is an absolute ‘must see’ production. As Glass’s operas have yet to enter the mainstream repertoire, it may be some considerable time before “Satyagraha” will be presented again in the UK. (This production goes to co-producers, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, next year.) But would it be too much to hope that ENO might revive “Akhnaten”, which it mounted in 1985, and that Improbable might be invited to stage “Einstein on the Beach”, so that London audiences can experience Glass’s extraordinary operatic trilogy?

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