ENO and the Met's co-production of Philip Glass' 1980 semi-narrative opera on Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha, premiered to great acclaim in London in 2007 before travelling to New York for a similarly successful run in 2009. It returns with great fanfare to the Coliseum this month, announced as 'the most popular contemporary work performed by ENO'. Such success explains the eagerness to bring this Satyagraha back so soon at the expense of developing a new piece, although the production's significant artistic merits compensate greatly for any such lack.
Satyagraha is very much a pivotal work for its composer. It lies somewhat midway in his career both professionally and artistically; the austere additive/subtractive ostinato technique Glass had cultivated up to that point persists into the piece as an organising principle, but its heart is looking forward to the vertical, harmonically-driven style that has come to define the public 'Glass sound' as much as any tendency towards repetition. This latter sweet, serene, and emotionally effective harmonic consonance is what drive the libidinal force of Satyagraha, what shapes its affective power.
The opera traces Gandhi's core principle of nonviolence (expressed in the eponymous 'truth-force') through three elliptical acts, each constructed around 'spiritual guardians' who represent the past, present and future of Satyagraha; Tolstoy, the Indian poet Tagore, and Martin Luther King. Signal events from Gandhi's life are depicted non-chronologically across six of the opera's seven scenes (the first scene stages an allegory with Krishna, Gandhi, Arjuna and others that delineates the principle of Satyagraha). These events, in the order they appear in the show, are as follows: the establishment of 'Tolstoy Farm' in South Africa in 1910; 'The Vow' of 1906 where 3,000 Indians committed to struggle unto death in opposition to the cruel British 'Black Act' which severely circumscribed their civil status; the 1896 'Confrontation and Rescue' between Gandhi and white South Africans; the establishment of Indian Opinion in 1906; the 1908 'Protest' where Indians, led by Gandhi, burned their registration cards; finally, for the whole of the third act, the 'New Castle March' of 1913 where over 5,000 'Satyagrahis' protested against racial discrimination by the colonial government.
Each scene contains dramatic staging of these events, but the drama is always ghostly and stylised; the boorish and garish laughing men of the Confrontation scene evoke in horror the very real hostility that would have been the case, for instance, whilst the final March spins around a beautiful stasis that shifts in intensity and conviction more than it does in any physical or dramatic sense. Highly unusually for this house the dialogue is sung in the work's original Sanskrit, and without surtitles. (Dictums and aphorisms from the text are projected on the background of the set.) The dramatic obliqueness of the piece's framing ideals is thus underlined by the detail of its materials, materials that are nurtured as inalienable in this staging.
Performed with great skill and assiduity by Stuart Stratford and the house orchestra, the musical elements of the show are of the highest quality. The precision exuded by Stratford and his players (the quality perhaps most demanded by the incessant metric shifts of the score) has if anything become more solid, more firm, in the three years since the first production. As such the threat of awkwardness of line and form which hangs over the music was held off with flair. Instead, all the irregular accent shifts and metric modulations sounded utterly natural to the expressive palette of the drama, even giving a sheen of finesse to the stasis of movement and development outlined within (the flautists and keyboard players deserve special credit for this). The many shifts into Gorecki-like elegy in the work were handled with just the right degree of beauty, never too syrupy in phrasing or inflection. The repeating violin figure of the third scene was exemplary in this regard. As I have said, one of the abiding details of the score is one of ceaseless patterns in shifting metric arrangements, and for this reason the highest compliment that can be paid to the band is to say that their performance seemed absolutely machine-tooled. At the same time, however, that machinism was crucially enhanced by moments of elegant or lithe fracture, where, for example, the solo oboe that twisted in counterpoint with the protagonist Oke in the second act signified a startling interpellation of the human into the spellbinding engine rhythms.
The singers, too, excelled. The two principals that had made such a strong impression in the initial run, Elena Xanthoudakis in the role of Mrs Schlesen and Alan Oke as Gandhi, thankfully returned. The first was as stentorian and powerhouse as before, clarion above the rest in the choruses, pitch-precise and with wobble just about on the right side of variable in solos. The latter gave off a serenity and radiance in his performance that was matched with a certain gracefulness in his tone that was at its most effective when contrasted with the heft and vigour of others, particularly Robert Poulton and James Gower's Arjuna and Krishna in the first scene. (Special mention should be made of Gower, who impressed with sensitive and measured performances in the dual roles of Krishna and Parsi Rustomji.) Oke and indeed Stratford only faltered to any substantial degree in the early stages of the final scene, where the singer repeatedly failed to find the centre of his notes in the crucial build to his concluding 35-time repetition of an ascending Phrygian scale (which by contrast was gorgeous, given lustre by Oke’s baritone-rich timbre), and Stratford broadly overplayed the calmness. Otherwise, the performance was generally seamless and rich with expressive force.
Though the musical elements of the staging are therefore strong, it is yet the dramaturgical aspect that distinguishes this production. Directed and designed by British theatre company Improbable's Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch respectively, the production makes subtle but wonderfully effective use of text projections, incredibly elaborate puppetry (the large Gollum-like spectres of Act Two need to be seen to be believed), and a malleable set that opens out frequently to host Tolstoy, Tagore, and King in iconic poses overarching the drama. Every single touch of the production works. Broad stasis of course characterises the show, and as such Improbable work inventively within the field of information available to them. McDermott and Crouch gently nudge singers about the stage, they use projection and animation with just the right sense of colour and perspective, and they make a virtue of onstage transformations of set and prop (the final scene includes a startling movement involving tape first being strung across the stage with flickering effect, then being elegantly rolled up, before members of the 'skills' team finally adroitly manipulate it to become another version of one of the earlier spectres). The team generally employ a dramatic flair that utterly complements the very unique ethos of the work itself. The production contains great flourishes, but these never impede the opera's singular serenity, in fact compelling it to greater force instead.
Emphatically not a biography (the latest events portrayed come after all thirty five years before Gandhi’s death), or even a depiction in any real sense of Gandhi the living and breathing man, the work seeks a cryptic poetry that evokes in profile the elusiveness and transcendence of the concept at the heart of Gandhi's philosophy. The superlunary ideals of Satyagraha are projected onto their author, such that the Gandhi we view is neither man nor messiah, but idea. The answering of any drama or conflict within the piece with stasis and equanimity levels the consciousness to the point of hardness, a hardness that is apparently external to moral inquiry (which we know not to be an accurate portrayal of Gandhi nor the movement he inspired). But such is the way of this opera, a work developed in a form which cannot provide a moral disquisition after all, but can merely poetically explore some of the ideals of a philosophy, in this case Gandhi's philosophy.
The music and the drama of Satyagraha do not quite capture the apparent egalitarianism of the doctrine. Competing lines in the show after all include the sneering 'the devilish folk, in them there is no purity, no morality, no truth', which the work asks us to give credit to in its portrayal of monstrous opponents of Gandhi, and the contradictory 'I love the man who hates not nor exults..I love the man who is the same to friend and foe'. Clearly religious screed is not known for its consistency (the text is taken from the Bhagavada Vita), but the polarised depiction of participants in Satyagraha surely gainsays the ambition of its philosophy? The glorious meditation and stillness at the heart of the music does, however, convey something profound about Gandhi's unique attitude, and as such the subject and form are generally well-matched. The Improbable production knows this, but it also knows that the more contemplative aspects need to be leavened with some sort of compelling dynamic ingredient. The subtly shifting inventions of the staging serve that purpose, bringing to light internal tensions and forces, even, that had not been apparent before. An achievement of the highest quality.
Photos by Alastair Muir