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<em>Satyagraha</em>, English National Opera
05 Feb 2018

Satyagraha at English National Opera

The second of Philip Glass’s so-called 'profile' operas, Satyagraha is magnificent in ENO’s acclaimed staging, with a largely new cast and conductor bringing something very special to this seminal work.

Satyagraha, English National Opera

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Toby Spence and ENO company, Satyagraha

Photo credit: Douglas Cooper


In recent years, there has been a tendency with many of Glass’s scores (one thinks of the First Violin Concerto, for example) to revisit his tempos and this was very notable in the pacing of the opera this time round. It made for a very long evening, but the upside was a transformation in the music that added much needed depth and emotional integrity to a work that sometimes seems to be missing both. A downside, of course, is that in an opera that really has such minimal narrative to keep it moving one’s concentration and endurance is tested to the limits. This sometimes felt like Parsifal on benzodiazepine, or an over-dramatized Bach oratorio - but it is to the credit of a splendid cast and a brilliantly engaged conductor that this performance was so spellbinding. For a first night, which so often isn’t perfect, this was as close to ideal as I’ve heard in many years.

If Satyagraha is the best of the three profile operas it is largely because it has neither the astringency ofEinstein on the Beach nor the monotonal repetitiveness of Akhnaten. Minimalism can sometimes sound very temporal and hollow, but here at such a broad tempo (take, for example, the scene in Act II with the burning of the passes which could have almost been lifted from the pages of re-orchestrated Bach) and the effect was transcendental. That is not to say that the score doesn’t motor onwards like a typewriter - the male chorus, with their taunts of “Ha! Ha! Ha!” were acidic against the ENO woodwind - not always exactly synchronised - but this is a long scene and hugely demanding. The closing pages of Act III, where Gandhi stands beneath the plinth of Martin Luther King against darkening clouds that foreshadow the assassinations of both men, was devastating, yet taken at this chosen speed you felt it was never-ending. The music felt as oppressive as the bleakness of the imagery on stage; chromatic shifts in key from the orchestra were like changing projected film slides on a permanent loop.

For a composer so heavily involved in composing for film, it’s perhaps not surprising that ENO’s production of Satyagraha should acknowledge that debt, however tangentially. Whether it’s a steamship rolling slowly across the corrugated steel that remains the constant backdrop for this staging, or film of civil rights marches in support of King’s speech, the camera is both a means of projection and a means of communication. Before film, there was newspaper and here it is reimagined in every possible way. It is used as a means of peaceful protest, it is used as a means of violence, where the male chorus “stone” Gandhi into submission. It is used as a backdrop against which Sanskrit words are projected, it is used to cultivate fear and terror, where unspeakable violence is carried out behind curtains of newspaper in the darkness of the shadows. Before newspapers, there was just the word. Great tablets inscribed with single Sanskrit letters descend like monolithic slabs that recall the Ten Commandments.

Satyagraha ENO Chorus 2 (c) Donald Cooper.jpeg ENO, Satyagraha Photo credit: Douglas Cooper.

Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, the director and designer of this production, have made this opera as theatrical as possible to stem the awkwardness of its lack of narrative. There is an overwhelming sense of austerity, poverty and hardship to the corrugated township of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century South Africa here - and it even extends to the muddied, frayed bottoms of the women’s long dresses as they are dragged through the dirt. The attention to detail misses very little. This is a recycled staging, where the wicker baskets of Tolstoy Farm are magically transformed into giant fish, where torn and scrunched up newspapers are turned into huge monsters and disfigured puppets and where endless streams of sticky tape that served firstly as a fence are then torn down and folded like origami into a giant stick figure of a hangman. You are often awestruck by the acrobatics of Skills Ensemble. Not everything was perfect, but when it worked you couldn’t take your eyes off it. A scene where an image of the earth, spinning like a globe, appeared on a round table, for it and one of the performers, to slowly be lifted towards the roof of the stage was stunning.

Despite these sweepingly dramatic moments, so much of Satyagraha remains static. This production doesn’t wear its philosophy lightly. Excerpts from the Gita, or the principles of ‘truth force’ pepper the walls, like religious graffiti. Reading them is a form of stasis in itself. The arrest of the protestors in Act III is symptomatic of the opera’s glacial pacing. The armed soldiers could have been wading through treacle, yet it was oddly balletic to watch. For much of Act II Gandhi doesn’t actually sing a note of music - he wanders the stage like a prophet, and yet it was compelling to watch. The Act II burning of the passes seemed interminable, and would have been had it not been for the absolutely superb playing of the ENO orchestra who brought such intensity to the whole scene. King’s transformation at the end of Act III into a great orator was entirely mimed, and yet for almost twenty minutes you were transfixed as if you were watching a silent movie.

Toby Spence 2 (c) Donald Cooper (1).jpeg Toby Spence. Photo credit: Douglas Cooper.

So to the singing, which I found to be first rate. Toby Spence, singing the role of Gandhi for the first time, was compelling in the title role. The part of Gandhi is difficult because for large sections of the opera the tenor isn’t singing - though he is on stage. Spence is undeniably impressive - he transforms from young lawyer in Act I to philosopher and emerging prophet in the rest of the opera with convincing believability. The voice isn’t stentorian (I don’t think this role really requires that kind of singing), but there is pathos, humanity and deep insight to his interpretation. He is also a formidable stage actor, which isn’t something one should take for granted with an opera singer.

Nicholas Folwell Charlotte Beament Toby Spence Anna-Clare Monk Stephanie Marshall Clive Bayley (c) Donald Cooper.jpeg Nicholas Folwell, Charlotte Beament, Toby Spence, Anna-Clare Monk, Stephanie Marshall, Clive Bayley. Photo credit: Douglas Cooper.

Commanding as Kasturbai was the Canadian mezzo, Stephanie Marshall. The voice is both huge and rich, and this was a powerful assumption of the role of Gandhi’s wife. Charlotte Beament, as Miss Schlesen, Gandhi’s secretary, sounded a touch tentative at first but her brilliant and bright soprano was able to cut through the orchestra like glass. The composer is rather merciless in his demands for this particular role, since so much of it lies in the upper registers of the voice, but Ms Beament was often breath-taking, and her soprano is fresh enough to hold those high notes without the notes cutting short. By any standards, this was outstanding singing. Andri Björn Róbertsson, as Lord Krishna, sang magnificently, but was less compelling to watch I’m afraid. Nicholas Folwell as Mr Kallenbach seemed less secure when singing solo, where the voice appeared small, than he did when singing as part of an ensemble, where he largely excelled.

Karen Kamensek, the conductor, is something of a Philip Glass specialist, and it showed. Her command of the score was almost absolute, and she obtained from the Orchestra of English National Opera playing that was meticulous, sumptuous and impressively coherent. It’s one thing to get the notes in something like the right order; it’s quite another to make this score sound as deeply involving and as profound as Ms Kamensek achieved here. This was a major achievement for her and the ENO orchestra, who should probably now be considered one of the leading opera orchestras for Glass’s major works.

ENO’s Satyagraha was a major operatic landmark when it was first performed over a decade ago. It is still that - and absolutely unmissable.

Marc Bridle

Philip Glass: Satyagraha

Toby Spence - M. K. Gandhi, Charlotte Beament - Miss Schlesen, Anna-Clare Monk - Mrs Naidoo, Stephanie Marshall - Kasturbai, Nicholas Folwell - Mr Kallenbach, Sarah Pring - Mrs Alexander, Eddie Wade - Prince Arjuna, Clive Bayley - Parsi Rustomji, Andri Björn Róbertsson - Lord Krishna, Skills Ensemble; Production: Director - Phelim McDermott, Associate Director & Set Designer - Julian Crouch, Revival Producer - Peter Relton, Costumes - Kevin Pollard, Lighting - Paule Constable, Video - Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer (Fifty Nine Productions),English National Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Karen Kamensek (conductor)

ENO, The Coliseum, London; 1st February 2018.

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