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Mahatma Gandhi
22 Apr 2007

Satyagraha at ENO

Philip Glass’s 1980 work, new to the London stage, gives an illustrated account of Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, viewed through the eyes of his satyagraha philosophy of peaceful resistance.

Philip Glass: Satyagraha
English National Opera, 13 April 2007

Click here for Satyagraha mini-site.


Assembled from selected phrases of the Baghavada-Gita by librettist Constance de Jong, the opera was performed here entirely in unsurtitled Sanskrit, contrary to ENO’s “everything in English” policy. Presumably the thinking was that if a native English speaker chooses to write an opera in the language of the subject matter, then keeping the original language is key to preserving the integrity of the piece. In fact the entire libretto consists of just eighteen paragraphs of text, so along with the undulating repetitiveness of the score, each scene seems to hang entranced in mid-air. The work is, after all, a sequence of vast portraits of the promotion of passivity, rather than a living drama. A synopsis was supplied in the programme; however it provided context rather than actual plot.

The giant curved structure of the set was used to represent something between a holy book and a political memoir, by means of projected text and textual ornament which turned it from a corrugated-iron wall into an illuminated page. To this and the blank canvas of Glass’s music, the performance-art group Improbable brought their stunning brand of performance art, stilt-walking, aerobatics and puppetry. Scattered news pages and swathes of tape were formed into giant moving creatures, gods and political figures, then evaporated into air just as quickly. Hindu gods fought one another; giant grotesque figures walked amongst the buildings of a more modern world. And still the musical inertia continued.

Even within its stylistic context (that is to say, assuming that as an audience member one can absorb such a lengthy musical work where very little happens) the piece itself has structural failings, most noticeably the hole created by an over-long instrumental interlude preceding Gandhi’s Prayer in the third act.

The singing was of an exceptional standard almost throughout. Besides Alan Oke’s sincere, other-worldly tenor in the focal role of Gandhi, a large share of the credit should be given to conductor Johannes Debus and to ENO’s terrific chorus, particularly the men, who exhibited impressive rhythmic control as Act 2’s collective voice of complacent greed. Most of the principal cast were company regulars, although in her ENO debut as Miss Schlesen, the Greek-Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis made a hugely positive impression, with a secure purity to her meaty top notes. Indeed there were few vocal weaknesses — Jean Rigby’s Mrs Alexander had problems making herself audible, and Janis Kelly’s Mrs Naidoo experienced some intonation problems in her duet with Anne-Marie Gibbons’ Kasturbai.

This staging is a co-production with the Met, where it will be presented this time next year – and like ENO’s last Met collaboration (Anthony Minghella’s cinematically beautiful Madama Butterfly in 2005) is a visually breathtaking piece of theatre. Glass’s score, on the other hand, is more of an issue. It certainly creates a powerful atmosphere — but at over three hours of scales and repeated phrases, and with no character interaction or dialogue, can it even be thought of as an opera?

Ruth Elleson ©2007

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