A new production of a classic Glass work is a cause for great excitement in my household, and this was one of my most anticipated performances of the year. I didn’t especially choose to go on the first night, but it did mean that I didn’t read any reviews in advance. Incidentally, although I’m a great fan of the minimalist movement in general, I don’t like all minimalist composers, and I don’t like all of Glass’s music either. I actually haven’t heard Satyagraha in many years; in fact, not since I was an undergrad writing a paper on the ‘Trilogy’ *, but vaguely remembered liking it at the time. Some of the people who have reviewed this work for reputable newspapers clearly have an aversion to minimalism in general; I know they are paid to go and see things and give an opinion, but quite what the point is of sending a hack who has already made up their mind to hate it, I don’t know (or one so ignorant that they have no idea what to expect).
Anyway, it was absolutely fantastic; entrancing (quite literally) both visually and aurally. The set, to complement the music, managed to be both simple and intricately detailed at the same time. It was an overall saffron/rust kind of colour scheme, with very little in the way of furniture. The floor was covered in small tiles made from photographs, I think, which provided the intricacy of design. There was a semi-circular wall of corrugated cardboard(?) reaching from floor to ceiling and from side to side of the stage, in which doors and windows seamlessly opened when needed; this gave, literally, an over-arching structure. The surtitles were projected directly onto this, mixing text with action in a way I have never seen before. It would have been wonderfully effective had the text all actually been visible, but from the middle of the Upper Circle only 50-75% of it was readable, which was rather annoying (and one of my few serious criticisms). It may not exactly be the most libretto-dependent of operas, but that is not the point. Sometimes text was projected onto pieces of newspaper held up by chorus members, and this would also have been very effective if the projection hadn’t sometimes missed the paper a bit.
Some of the visual effects were a little silly (e.g. when the chorus each remove one item of clothing and put them on hangers which are then winched up to just above their heads for the rest of the scene, or when the chorus spend a great deal of time pushing cut-out silhouettes of small houses around the stage) but others were excellent. Having read that the production involved giant puppets, I was certainly wondering how these fitted in to the story. How they fitted in was by various (news)papier mache structures being fitted together on stage to create representations of some of the key concepts and images of the different scenes – people, animals, mythical figures and monsters. The ones operated by stilt-walkers were particularly cool. There were also some other misshapen and sinister figures which actually rather reminded me of Spitting Image puppets. (Could have sworn I saw Roy Hattersley…)
Not having a programme, I had some difficulty in ascertaining which character was which, especially among the female leads. However, there were a couple of really gorgeous voices and none that were weak or unpleasant. To be picky, I think the balance of voices against orchestra was sometimes misjudged (in favour of the orchestra) but this is something which was probably sorted out in subsequent performances. The closest thing to a weak link was, I would say, the men’s chorus. Although they made a good sound, their rhythm was slightly imprecise and out of sync at times, especially at the start of Act 2; however, I suspect this may have been very difficult, and again, probably ironed out in later performances.
Alan Oke was a charismatic Gandhi, and sang beautifully throughout. In fact, the bit at the very start, where he begins singing solo and is then joined by two others (Krishna and Arjuna?) was one of the loveliest bits of music in the whole thing. I don’t think I’ve heard him before, but certainly mean to in the future. There were also several times where he had long sections of solo singing of extremely repetitious and slow chant-like musical lines; these could quite easily have become boring (even for hardened Glass fans), but they didn’t. In fact, I didn’t want him to stop. (What I did want to stop, incidentally, was a stupid, ignorant and arrogant cow sitting a row back from me and a few seats across, who made disparaging comments every now and then to her companion. Apart from the fact that I don’t believe anyone would buy tickets for this having no idea what sort of a piece it was, one thing I find extremely objectionable is other people sulkily spoiling others’ enjoyment of things they are incapable of appreciating themselves. Why make comments during a performance? Why not just leave – ideally during an interval? After putting up with this behaviour for far too long, I turned round and hissed at her to shut the f**k up, which did actually work. I didn’t get much of a look at her because they legged it the instant the curtain went down. Probably wise, because despite it being an evening celebrating non-violence, I might have punched her.)
Lastly, but definitely not least, the orchestra were stunning. During the interval, one of our group expressed disbelief that real musicians were really playing the notes live, rather than the different patterns being recorded a few times each, then digitally sequenced (and sped up). The woodwind, in particular, sounded implausibly flawless. I’ve done a small amount of playing flute parts by minimalist composers, and in my experience, they generally write two or three players alternating to make up one unbroken melodic line. This gives one time to take a breath every now and then, and makes the performance slightly less RSI-inducing, but it is still a huge test of technicality and stamina. Hats off.
I can understand why some people might have ignored this production, expecting it to be ‘not their sort of thing’, and I even think some of them are probably right to do so. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that those who didn’t see it really missed out on a rare musical/theatrical experience. There’s still tickets left for the remaining performances. Go.
* Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten