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Three years ago, Improbable’s new production of Satyagraha at the English National Opera – the work’s London premiere – “broke all Company box-office records for contemporary opera”. This brings several immediate thoughts to mind, such as: whether a thirty-year old work, and one so clearly of its historical period, can sensibly be described as ‘contemporary’; whether it fulfils enough of the classical music world’s somewhat imprecisely-defined criteria to ‘qualify’ as an opera (a fair question regarding Einstein on the Beach, less so in this case); what it was that made this production of this opera so popular with audiences; and lastly, quite why it took so many years for one of the professional UK opera companies to programme the work. Composed in 1980 under commission from the City of Rotterdam, the work’s world premiere was by De Nederlandse Opera, followed swiftly by performances in New York and Stuttgart, but took decades to reach London. Of course, there are many good reasons why the programming of a Glass opera is a challenge for a company, but by taking up this challenge in 2007 and acquitting itself so thoroughly, the ENO laid the groundwork for the various other exciting non-standard operatic works that have graced its stage in the last and current seasons (for example Le Grand Macabre, Elegy for Young Lovers, and Dr Atomic).

This production is simply superb. The director-designer partnership of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch create a Satyagraha with style, resonance and wit, not sticking to the letter of the original’s obsessively detailed stage directions (which include instructions for the length of grass – a range “from knee-high to trampled”, if you were wondering) but very much in their spirit. Colours generally range through a warm glowing yellow – orange – brown spectrum, with costumes appropriate for  period, location, and for the making of clear distinction between ‘Indian’ and ‘European’ characters and factions. The curved backdrop is all corrugated iron (an essential colonial building material of the period), and the props consist mainly of newspaper (representing Indian Opinion) and other simple items which might have been found on Tolstoy Farm – canes, baskets, etc. And sellotape. Two aspects of the visualisation stand out as particularly original and effective, however. Puppetry may not be especially unusual on the opera stage, but the towering puppets here (some religious, some animal, and some resembling zombified Spitting Image dolls) are constructed and deconstructed in flowing motion from the simple items above, by a ‘Skills Ensemble’ also utilising stilts and aerial acrobatics. Use of video projection, likewise, is now quite standard, but in addition to projections of rolling clouds, historical film footage, etc., text excerpts are projected directly onto backdrops, flats, and newspapers held up by the chorus (unlike the 2007 premiere, this time perfectly aligned!) While on an everyday basis we are, on posters and in magazines, presented with multimodal visual representations involving intermingling of pictures and text in a shared space (and on web pages incorporating live action too) it is fresh and new to see on the stage, and particularly when so elegantly done.

Satyagraha is a Sanskrit word literally meaning ‘truth force’, and used by Gandhi for his movement of non-violent political protest. The libretto (by Constance De Jong) is adapted from the Bhagavada Gita, a meditation on the spiritual preparation for combat. It cannot go without comment that the English National Opera, famous for translating well-known Italian, German and French operas into English, are singing, unsurtitled, in an an ancient, and to most listeners, entirely unfamiliar, language. However, Glass – an Anglophone composer – made the choice to retain the authentic sounds and rhythms of the Bhagavada Gita source; the exact words, while of course not without meaning, are not necessary for the understanding of what is happening on stage. The libretto is, in fact, a perfect text complement to the ‘minimalist’ compositional form of the music, being built from the multiple repetitions, variations and combinations of a deliberately small quota of base material. Although the opera focuses on Gandhi’s years in South Africa, 1896-1913, there is no conventional dramatic arc, and the structure is intended to be meditative rather than narrative. The three acts form an overarching structure of Past (represented by Leo Tolstoy), i.e. Gandhi’s historical inspiration in developing the Satyagraha concept, Present (represented by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore), and Future (represented by Martin Luther King), i.e. those who were in turn inspired by Gandhi’s life and teachings; however, within this framework, key moments from Gandhi’s life are arranged asynchronously. There is none of the dramatic momentum which can drive an opera forward even when we know how it will end – and yet dramatic intensity is still achieved.

Absolutely central to the dramatic and musical structures is Gandhi himself, present on stage almost continuously whether singing and/or participating in the action or observing the others, and on whose shoulders the opera effectively rests. He must have great stage presence, the ability to hold the attention even when barely moving, and it is not unhelpful also to look the part! Alan Oke displayed all these qualities and more, inhabiting the role with an almost preternatural aura of calm intensity. The acting requirements are mirrored by the vocal: there are no tenorish histrionics or showy fireworks, but needed is the strength and stamina to hold long lines in perfectly balanced symmetrical shape, without fluctuation in tone or breath. There is nowhere to hide flaws, nor any cheap points to score to ‘wow’ the audience. However, this challenge posed no difficulty for Oke’s smooth, clear tenor, carrying as effortlessly whether low or high, whether at the start or finish of a three-hours-plus performance. In case it is still unclear quite how highly I rate his performance, I note that the final ‘aria’ consists of a single eight-note scale repeated very many times; I couldn’t say how many times because I was in a somewhat trancelike state, and was a little sad when it finally finished and normality resumed – what, already? (To be fair, I can imagine how it might have been an excruciating period of time for those who don’t ‘get’ Glass.)

The trinity structure running through many aspects of the work includes the nine principal roles, with two other main male roles making up a trio with Gandhi: Mr Kallenbach (Ashley Holland) and Parsi Rustomji (James Gower, also singing the smaller role of Lord Krishna). These both gave strong performances, although in a more traditional ‘operatic’ style of delivery, considerably so in the case of Holland, which is perhaps not quite right for this style of music. Heavy vibrato and even a little rubato can throw out the symmetry of complex minimalist patterns. Gower seemed more comfortable with the genre, and the opening scene trio, where he provides a third layer to join Gandhi and Arjuna’s (Robert Poulton) excellent duet was very effective. There is also a complementary trio of female roles, Miss Schlesen (Elena Xanthoudakis), Mrs Naidoo (Janis Kelly) and Kasturbai (Stephanie Marshall), who spent a great part of their time singing together. Of the three, I thought Marshall had a particular feel for the music, and was the closest to Oke in terms of clarity of line and evenness of tone, and as with the men, Xanthoudakis and Kelly gave strong, enjoyable performances, but at times a touch too soloistic. Having said that, Xanthoudakis’s slight rubato worked better than Holland’s, perhaps because of Kelly and Marshall’s superbly steady rhythm below, or perhaps because a bright soprano sailing above the masses has an innate freedom to it. The pattern of threes works slightly differently in Act 2, involving Mrs Alexander (Anne Mason) gallantly protecting Gandhi from a male chorus of ‘devilish folk’, i.e. angry Europeans. When I saw this production in 2007, this scene was a slightly weak link. In Act 2 tempers are high, and the music is at its most spiky, chromatic and driving, with the male chorus engaging in long periods of fast ha-ha-ha rhythmic patterns, surely a test for anyone’s diaphragm; I was pleased to hear that this time they all kept together very well. The full chorus were generally solid and well-balanced, although occasionally they fell slightly behind the orchestra, particularly during  sequences based around multiples of seven.

The orchestra (under Stuart Stratford) have huge technical challenges in this piece, and as with the singers, they are not the conventional ones. There is very little solo playing, and no room for personalities; Glass may have replaced his keyboard-heavy band for Einstein with full string and woodwind sections, but he still treated the orchestra like a super-keyboard, blending the different timbres as an organist might combine stops. Scale- and arpeggio-based patterns are subjected to insane levels of repetition and permutation, and every piece of clockwork must be perfectly in place for the machine to run smoothly. I am not sure the phrase ‘like a stuck record’ has ever been used in a complimentary fashion, but here it is apt, in the sense that sometimes (for example, as the Indian Opinion printing press gathers steam) a lengthy arpeggio pattern would suddenly switch to a greatly truncated version, similar to the sound of a CD skipping – no mean feat to accomplish that level of synchronisation with a whole orchestra of live players. In fact, the orchestral playing was pretty much flawless, a huge piece of machinery either idling, imperceptibly shifting through the numerous gears, or going full throttle. Although the nature of the music works against picking out individual sections, I noticed in this performance that the lower strings were particularly good at imparting subtle yet goosebump-inducing mood changes.

I was hooked by the school of composition loosely termed ‘minimalism’ (Glass, Reich, Adams and co.) while a teenager, and clearly, I love this production and strongly recommend going to see it. Of course, I can understand why some people might have ignored it, 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 don’t see it are really missing out on a rare musical/theatrical experience.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]