Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

Carmen in Orange

Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

 Alan Oke as M. K. Gandhi [Photo by Alastair Muir/ENO]
17 Mar 2010

Philip Glass: Satyagraha, ENO, London 2010

Philip Glass's Satyagraha at the English National Opera, at the Coliseum, London, proves that modern minimalism can be extraordinarily moving. The secret is to open your soul, as Gandhi did, when he searched the Baghavad-Gita for inspiration.

Philip Glass: Satyagraha

Alan Oke: Gandhi; Elena Xanthoudakis: Miss Schlesen; Janis Kelly: Mrs Naidoo; Stephanie Marshall: Kasrurbai; Ashley Holland: Mr Kallenbach; James Gower: Parsi Rustomji and Lord Krishna ;Anne Mason: Mrs Alexander; Roger Poulton:Prince Arjuna. Skills Ensemble. Improbable. Phelim McDermott: Director. Julian Crouch: Set Designer. Kevin Pollard: Costumes. Stuart Stratford: Conductor. English National Opera,The Coliseum, London. 25th February 2010

Above: Alan Oke as M. K. Gandhi

All photos by Alastair Muir/ENO

 

Satyagraha doesn’t sound promising in theory, because it’s sung in Sanskrit and Glass’s repetitive monotones drone on shapelessly. But for once, that’s the whole point, that words alone are meaningless. Real change is brought about when people think and act.

The story is set in Gandhi’s youth, when he still believed that conventional, middle class ideas could change things. While he lived in South Africa, he was a facsimile of the British middle class intellectual, agitating through the press, hoping thus to change the entrenched colonial system.His big breakthrough came when he switched to direct action. By swapping his tweed three-piece suit for a simple cotton loincloth, he was making a truly radical statement: you don’t change the power structure by playing its own games.

Glass’s strange repetitive music works perfectly with the theme, too. His cadences hardly vary, so you worry that the musicians will get RSI. Yet listen carefully, and the repeats mutate in microtones, gradually shifting gears, so that when there’s a flight into lyricism, it strikes you all the more. This unrushed monotony is as natural as breathing. Hindus chant the word “Om” endlessly, until the vibration enters their bodies, allowing their minds to float, beyond consciousness. So it is with Glass’s music, informed by other and older traditions than western music.Your focus shifts inwards, beyond outward form.

There was exceptionally idiomatic playing from the ENO orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford. When the orchestra took their bows, parts of the audience went wild with enthusiasm. Clearly an audience that knows new music, or accepts it on its own terms. Satyagraha is the biggest selling contemporary opera the ENO has produced.

The text is in Sanskrit, which most people, including Indians, don’t understand. This is deliberate because what Gandhi discovered was that words and meaning aren’t the same thing. Hence the scene from the epic myth of Arjuna. The hero’s enemies are puppets, men with sticks who crumble when moved. Scene titles appear, like chapter headings in books, but what unfolds on stage isn’t narrative. Tolstoy and Tagore appear in panels above the stage. You don’t really need to know who they are, because the idea is that you’ll want to find out more, later.This opera moves outside the box in time and space!

There are so many amazing images in this production that it’s hard to take them all in at once. Some are striking, like the giant puppets that descend menacingly on Gandhi, corralled by bigots singing “hahahaha”. Others are elusive, like the fish which materializes in the second act. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get them all. Like words, images are hints of meaning, not meaning in themselves. Like poetry, meaning is oblique, revealing itrself slowly.

Satyagraha_001.gifStephanie Marshall as Kasturbai Gandhi’s wife, Elena Xanthoudakis as Miss Schlesen Gandhi’s secretary, Janis Kelly as Mrs Naidoo’s Indian co-worker and Ashley Holland Mr Kallenbach’s European co-worker

Because Glass’s music is so unusual, and his text obscure, staging in this opera is even more important than usual. Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Improbable and their team have created a theatrical masterpiece which is sensitive and well-informed.

The staging is so atmospheric that the simple clean lines of the Third Act come as quite a shock. Gandhi sits front stage while a man ascends a ladder. The reference is Martin Luther King. who adapted the principles of Satyagraha to the Civil Rights Movement. At the premiere in 2007, I thought this act was too abrupt a change from the sepia-tinted mystery that had gone before, and that the image of King waving to the clouds was contrived, as if designed for American audiences who might not appreciate how powerful the British Empire once was.Since then, Barack Obama has become President. But have we really”reached the mountain top”?

On the other hand, the spareness of this Act hones in on Alan Oke as Gandhi. Perhaps it’s significant that until this stage in the opera, Oke sings with an ensemble or remains relatively quiet. Now he’s centre focus. He sings two extended “arias”, the first with its references to “athletes of the spirit” who hold steadfast unto death. The second is more lyrical for he’s expressing transcendence. Oke has matured into the part, and is singing with greater depth and dignity than three years ago. He’s in his element now. You don’t need to know the exact words he’s singing, because he conveys their sense with such conviction. Also more comfortable this time, in the role of Miss Schlesen, is Elena Xanthoudakis: whose sings lovely flights of lyrical beauty. Musically, this production is even better than before, superb performances all round. It’s far tighter than the Stuttgart production available on DVD. Let’s hope this one is preserved on film. It’s a classic.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):