English National Opera

The London Coliseum, 7 April 2007 3.5 stars


The English National Opera production of Philip Glass' Satyagraha is a stage spectacle well worth seeing. It is entertaining, fascinating and informative. However, it is debatable whether Glass' composition, described as his second opera, can be regarded as an opera.

Created for the Netherlands Opera and premiered in Rotterdam in 1980, the composition lacks standard operatic requirements such as a plot and dialogues. With its subject matter and significant choral ingredients, Satyagraha could be considered as an oratorio. Indeed, in this ENO production the singers (soloists as well as chorus) keep facing the audience and singing as if they were performing in a concert hall. On the other hand, without the imaginative and pleasing costumes, designs and - most importantly - astonishing stage spectacle (provided by the twelve-member skills ensemble), the oratorio form - therefore a concert performance - would direct attention to the debatable quality of the music.

There are people who enjoy Philip Glass' music. On the night I attended Satyagraha, I met a family with two children in the audience. They came specifically because of Philip Glass. On the other hand, many people enjoy pop music too, but opera houses don't stage pop events. Or might that be the next step?

Though repetition is a main feature of Glass' music (supposedly because of his interest in religious chants), he is mindful of dynamic structure. Accompanied initially by the cellos, Satyagraha starts with a tenor solo which goes seamlessly into a duet (tenor, baritone), then into a trio (tenor, baritone, bass) and finally into full chorus - all the time sounding as if the vocal lines were taken from Russian liturgy or folklore (or from both). Glass also cares about orchestral colour, thus he changes, reduces and increases various instruments to suit his colour scheme. There are no horns, brass or percussion instruments in the Satyagraha score.

Glass' frequently occurring repetitions, both vocal and instrumental, may be regarded as hypnotic and on par with religious chants and practices. Or do these constant repetitions manifest a lack of invention? His unashamed naked use of scales and arpeggios (instead of composing phrases and themes with them) could be deemed as an outright insult to the art of composition before Glass. The vocal line in the closing aria of Satyagraha consists only of the ascending Phrygian mode but sung about thirty times. Would music academies (past and present) accept such a composition from their students?

The solo singers, chorus, and orchestra, as well as the magnificent skill ensemble, deliver a good performance. The conductor beats time accurately and indicates all entries reliably: in a score of this kind it is unlikely that he has time left for anything else. The subject of Satyagraha is Mohandas Gandhi's period of life in South Africa (1893 -1914) and his fight against the so-called Black Act which restricted the rights of non-Europeans (including the substantial Indian community) in South-Africa. Gandhi invented the concept of satya-graha (truth-force) and developed peaceful means of fighting for their cause. This period of history is very rich in events and Glass' opera addresses many of them. We also learn about the main influences on Gandhi: Krishna (c. 3000 B.C.), Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) and Tagore (1861 -1941). Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) also appears but - as Gandhi was an influence on him rather than the other way round - the inclusion is somewhat laboured.

The splendid staging (by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch) adds further dimensions to the subject matter. Relevant Gods and mythical figures abound, mostly miraculously created in front of our eyes by puppeteers, trapeze artists, stilt-walkers and the like. Newspapers (serving to remind us of the Indian Opinion which was Gandhi's publication spreading the Satyagraha ideas) were turned into formations and figures relevant to Indian philosophy and history.

The libretto, by Glass and Constance De Jong, was adapted from the text of Bhagavad Gita (in English translation Song of God or Divine Song) which is an ancient Sanskrit text of 700 verses and tells of times starting with Krishna. With artistic courage (or with mindless arrogance?) the authors left the libretto in the ancient Sanskrit language. This assures that neither performers nor the audience understand what is being sung. To keep the mystery, at the ENO production we had no English surtitles though the English translation of the full text was made available to all. In many (though not all) of their choral numbers the chorus struggled with the text (can anybody blame them?); their eyes were glued to the TV screens, which were strategically placed in the auditorium and displayed the Sanskrit words. All solo singers appeared to have memorised their words. However, one wonders: what happened to ENO's pledge to sing operas in the vernacular? It is also of note that at the post-performance discussion, generously facilitated by ENO management, a member of the audience complained: she knew Sanskrit but what she heard at the performance did not sound like Sanskrit. Here I rest my case.

ENO's Satyagraha is well worth seeing because of its spectacular but also informative staging. Nevertheless, its musical score is unlikely to enter the list of my favourite operas.

By Agnes Kory