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Image © Richard Hubert Smith, borrowed from http://www.guardian.co.uk

I gave up opera and concert reviewing a couple of years ago, but then this came along. Having written on Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, it would be wrong not to complete Part 3…

The house was packed and excitement palpable on opening night of Phelim McDermott’s new production of Philip Glass’s iconic Akhnaten – the first fully-staged UK performance since the eighties, when the work was new. The two previous instalments of the Portrait Trilogy to be staged in London, Satyagraha in 2007 (then 2010) and Einstein on the Beach in 2012, opened to rave reviews (including mine) and wide artistic acclaim, not to mention record-breaking commercial success for modern opera. (I refuse to describe music composed over 30 years ago as ‘contemporary’!)

The Improbable theatre company are known for the wildly complex creativity of their visual presentation, and have set themselves high standards to live up to in previous productions; nevertheless, they continue to meet them. Akhnaten utilises a compartmentalised staging on three vertical tiers, with various movable subdivisions in the horizontal and foreground/background planes, giving a three-dimensional array of stage space in which to play. Frequently, several scenes occur concurrently, for example, in Act I, fast repetitive movement on the top layer (a troupe of jugglers styled on Ancient Egyptian deities), glacially slow movement in the lower foreground (the funeral rites of Pharaoh Amenhotep III), and the mid-speed shufflings and shuntings of the unquiet common people in between. This is, in fact, a perfect visual analogue for Glass’s classical minimalist compositional style, with its monolithic layered structure of fast repetition of arpeggios and scale patterns with glacially slow harmonic or timbral change beneath. It also made it impossible to keep track of everything that was going on: you focus on one interesting part for a while, then suddenly realise a whole new set of characters have entered, possibly clambering around on a large rolling wheel in marbled leotards. Somewhat overwhelming (in a good way) in Act I, the simple lines and colours of Act II (again, corresponding to changes in the musical structure) allowed a period of calm before the destabilisations of Act III.

14th century BCE Pharaoh Akhnaten (née Amenhotep IV) seems to have been an interesting character, considered strange in his own time, and the victim of both posthumous smear campaigns and attempts at expungement from history. While little hard evidence is available, he is thought by some Egyptologists to have been female and disguised as a male in order to take the throne (not unknown in that period), or possibly intersex, as well as probably bisexual, and reputedly engaged in an incestuous relationship with his mother. This telling of the story was not going for the actually-a-woman interpretation, as Anthony Roth Costanza (Akhnaten) emerged naked and clearly externally male, although later costumes were designed as deliberately gender-ambiguous. The coronation robe, for example, brought to mind Elizabeth I – if she had worn it open down the front and accessorised with a double crown topped with a giant jellybean, that is. (Aside: I would be considerably more positively-disposed toward contemporary royalty if they were all bald genderqueer alien-looking beauties with more than a little of the David Bowie about them, and all coronation ceremonies included appearing naked then being flipped upside down by a cadre of shiny ambulant mummies into a large pair of pants.) Less positively, Akhnaten was also a religious zealot who, on ascending the throne, demanded all his people immediately switch to his new religion. The story (and yes, this opera does actually have a linear narrative) centres on this religious reformation to monotheistic sun-god worship. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to let on that the people of Egypt were not entirely impressed at the destruction of their temples and banning of their favoured polytheistic traditions, and it did not end well for Akhnaten.

It is apt that so far I have not mentioned the singing, as the title role neither sings nor speaks until some way into Act I, floating silently through his father’s funeral and his own coronation. When Costanzafinally opens his mouth, it is with a visceral, flexible countertenor that I initially thought too vibrato-laden and lacking the timbral stability I considered necessary for the music, but which subsequently settled (particularly in terms of blending with the always-accompanying trumpet) and grew on me swiftly to the point where I have difficulty imagining anyone better inhabiting the role. Two women form with him the central trio of characters. Mother Queen Tye was a soaring yet crisply-controlled Rebecca Bottone, while wife Nefertiti was sung with warm vibrancy by Emma Carrington, both of them with concentrated levels of intensity. The intermingling lines of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s Act II love duet were a particular musical highlight, as was their final trio. The secondary trio of male voices were also highly effective, and their sections provided a welcome change of sound whenever the physical, political world (in the form of James Cleverton’s military Horemhab,Clive Bayley’s adviser Aye, and Colin Judson’s priest of the old religion) intrudes on Akhnaten and family’s increasingly-insular spirituality. With most of the libretto in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, it fell to the Scribe (Zachary James) to narrate the events, spoken over musical underlay (a similar effect to the texts in Einstein). He did this in a declamatory, actorly manner, at the end rather impressively while carrying the dead Akhnaten cradled in his arms. (I am imagining a casting call specifying “must be able to deadlift countertenor and sustain for duration of monologue”.)

For an orchestra playing this type of score, the technical demands are considerable, and musically somewhat contradictory. Navigated and driven flawlessly by Karen Kamensek (currently MD of Hannover Staatstheater, and in her ENO debut), the musicians managed laser-cut robotic precision, yet with the necessary human warmth injected via timbre and sensitivity of dynamic phrasing. I was thinking of picking out individual wind soloists for compliment, but in fact they were all deserving. The ENO chorus were also on excellent vocal form, whether delivering polyrhythmic choral chanting while ominously hand-jiving with juggling balls and glowering at the out-of-touch royal family, or ethereal offstage harmonies floating up from the orchestra pit. They received one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night.

Lastly, of course, I must mention the balls. Balls, balls, flying everywhere (and I’m not referring to the Pharaoh’s). Not only is the preponderance of round objects appropriate for a piece of theatre on the subject of all-consuming worship of a spherical sky-god, but the earliest known archaeological records of ball juggling are from an 11th Dynasty Egyptian tomb painting. Normal-sized juggling balls were flung in delightfully precisely-patterned choreography by Sean Gandini’s company of dancing jugglers, larger bubble-like balls bounced around as the Atenist religion develops, and a huge glowing globe swelled to take up most of the stage for the stunning Hymn to the Sun. This was all highly entertaining, and worked well as an alternative visual iconography for the construction and deconstruction of the City of the Horizon of Aten.

What would I like to see in the future from ENO? I’d like to see the Portrait Trilogy of Einstein, Satyagraha and Akhnaten presented in London as a cycle on three consecutive nights (as the State Opera of South Australia did in 2014). Improbable? Twenty years ago we would have said that about a staged performance of any of the three individually (and particularly Einstein), but have been proved wrong with aplomb. Please make it happen.

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

Photo of Antoine Silverman as Einstein

Image © Lucie Jansch, from http://www.barbican.org.uk

Two women sit at a desk, staring at us, motionless apart from their hands tracing quick rhythmic movements in the air. One is reciting poetry, the other interjecting a string of numbers, above a low-pitched organ hum. The woman reciting poetry is doing so in the pleasant but emotionally neutral tone of modern speech-synthesising software; the woman reciting numbers does so with humanity and expression in every one. Something is wrong: poetry woman starts to stutter – not a human stutter, but an android showing the first signs of malfunction. I don’t know what it means, but I’m gripped. And the performance proper hasn’t even begun yet.

Louise Jeffreys, Director of Programming at the Barbican, has commented that she had been waiting ten years to put on this work. Well, I’ve been waiting twenty to see it. I discovered Einstein on the Beach as an undergraduate, and immediately fell in love with it. I loved its emphasis on temporal structure, its almost-fractal patterns, its non-linear symbolism, and its utterly uncompromising nature – and all this just from the single (at the time) available audio recording. Being an undergraduate, the fact that most of my friends, and a large proportion of the music department, found it completely impenetrable and/or highly annoying could only add to the appeal. The first production was in 1976, and now, 36 years later, it has finally received its long-overdue UK premiere. Thank you to all concerned for making it happen!

Waiting expectantly outside the theatre, there was concern among us that it wouldn’t happen, as the start time was pushed back 15 minutes, then another 15. Seeing a new production, of course, one doesn’t know exactly what is missing or malfunctioning, but I gather there were various technical problems with aspects of the set and staging. These resulted in some odd gaps between scenes and an unscheduled interval after Act 1 – which, despite it going against the creators’ wishes, I didn’t mind, as it meant I didn’t have to miss a single note! (The whole thing is around five hours long, and there are no intervals, audience members being expected to quietly shuffle in and out as and when they require refreshment, etc.) On the subject of missing notes, there were just enough miniscule glitches – a finger slip here, an extra breath there, a tuning issue on flute (swiftly fixed, of course!) – to remind one that in contrast to today’s auditory world of hyper-produced sound and digitally-looped high-definition samples, here was pure live musicianship of astonishing virtuosity. As one would expect from a decades-long collaborator of Glass’s, conductor Michael Riesman’s control of the music was superb. Unfortunately he had no control over the lights on the music stands, and in the final scene (as far as I could tell) had to play for some time in the dark, while simultaneously yelling at the crew to sort it out.

With a lesser show, or lesser performers, these technical hitches could have significantly marred the performance. In this case, they were a small fly in a very large pot of ointment. In the Barbican’s Q&A event earlier in the week, Glass spoke of the musical demands this work makes on performers, and how some of the singers cast in the original production had considerable difficulty learning it, whereas today’s performers are expected to take such challenges within their stride. Indeed, contemporary groups like Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich) have set the bar very high, but the Einstein chorus fulfilled and exceeded expectations, demonstrated most clearly in their flawless delivery of the fiendishly fast additive rhythms of the a capella Knee Play 3. Bed, the section of music most closely resembling a traditional operatic aria, was sung by American mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn; she seemed somewhat hesitant at first – a little unsteady, or perhaps just feeling the effects of an extremely long evening – but nevertheless showing real understanding and feel for the music (something missing, for example, in several of the soloists in the ENO’s 2010 Satyagraha). On the other hand, the jazz-influenced Building, previously always one of my least favourite scenes, was immeasurably lifted by Andrew Sterman’s gloriously raspy, soaring tenor saxophone solo.

Another interesting comment from Glass during the Q&A was that in previous runs of the show, he had found that – unlike in operas with linear plots – the emotional high points were in different places on different nights. For me, on this occasion, while the Spaceship scene was undoubtedly the most intense assault on the senses (and wonderful it was, too, even with incomplete staging), the emotional centres of the work were Night Train, featuring a silent, glacially-measured Helga Davis, followed by Trial/Prison, where Kate Moran repeated a short text over and over, with slightly different – and increasingly unhinged – expression every time. The last few words of this banal fragment, seemingly innocuous, are quite chilling in their sudden invoked subtext of nuclear war (the link being with Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On The Beach). As the two Characters, Davis and Moran were masterpieces of non-narrative spoken and physical expression throughout, and violinist Antoine Silverman was believable as the scientist worrying about the implications of atomic physics while obsessively spiralling up and down scales. Trial One used the alternate (1984) speech – Charles Williams’ misogynist Old Judge viciously parodying the feminists who dared to demand equality for women, as opposed to the more benevolent sexism of the original text.

As someone familiar only with the music and libretto, seeing the work staged for the first time was an amazing experience. Having heard Wilson describe his preoccupation with structuring time and space through different kinds of light, the results of his creative vision and fine attention to detail were clear to see in a luminous palette and surreal edge that made me think of Dalí, particularly in Train One. The music occasionally contains sudden discrete changes of direction, but most progression is in almost imperceptible increments; these same structures applied throughout to the lighting, and to the movement of characters and objects. Particularly effective was the use of multiple concurrent speeds of movement between different individuals or groups; this also lead to brilliant visual diversions that made it possible suddenly to realise that while you were busy watching the Boy on Tower, or the Woman with Newspaper, a huge steam train had quietly crept onto stage. The one visual aspect which was significantly less engaging was the dance element. It is true I am no dance aficionado, but I do have an interest in the visual representation of numeric structures, and while the dancers’ steps and jumps corresponded neatly to micro changes in rhythm and harmony, I got no sense of the macro structure evident in all other aspects of the work.

Philip Glass’s style has been so frequently pastiched (or, shall we say, shamelessly ripped off?) for use with video, that – taken with the fact that he has been rather prolific in this field himself – it has become something of a little game, when watching TV science documentaries or psychological dramas, to bet on whether the score is Real or Fake Glass. The one thing that nobody has dared rip off, though, is the Einstein Chord Sequence – as immediately identifiable as the Tristan Chord. Flinging one back and forth between F minor and E major, courtesy of enharmonic pivot B♭♭ = A, the momentary emotional solidity of a IV – V – I cadence is repeatedly destroyed by the semitone shift up of the temporary tonic, creating a profoundly unsettling effect on the listener. The first occurrence (in the closing section of Train One), had such a hair-raising effect on me that it is only thanks to modern haircare products that I didn’t resemble an Einstein-style fright wig myself, and every single further occurrence was goosebump-inducing, including the eight-minute-long version at the end of Act 4.

Is it an opera? Not if you require your operas to have a coherent linear story, a title role who actually sings something, and more than one vocal aria. Otherwise, I don’t see why not. Robert Wilson has always described it as an opera, despite contentiously claiming in the (1985) film how he once “went to the opera – hated it!” (Interestingly, older Wilson, speaking earlier this week, was happy to reference Wagner on more than one occasion, in regard to temporal structuring in The Ring…)

Should you go? All the diehard Glass/Wilson fans dived for their tickets the minute booking opened last year, but at time of writing there are still some seats left for most performances. If you’re short of attention span, or have set ideas about how an opera should and should not be (see above), probably not. Otherwise, give it a try – it could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this seminal work. And it’s even acceptable to wander out of the auditorium for a drink and chat whenever you feel like a break.

At what point should you take your caffeine-and-comfort break? I’d suggest during Dance 1 or 2. Under no circumstances be away during Train One or Spaceship, and do also try to avoid missing any of the abstract but lovely Knee Plays.

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

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Philip Glass’s best-known operatic works – the ‘Portrait Trilogy’ of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten – focus on iconic figures driven by inner vision and conviction to change the world for the better. Einstein, Gandhi and Akhnaten – though overcoming strife and difficulty on the way – achieve their destinies, and their music, while containing periods of tension and aggression, is ultimately uplifting. The making of the representative for Planet 8 (from Doris Lessing’s novel), which followed these, showed a darker side, dealing as it does with the extinction of an entire human(-oid) species, but still ended in transfiguration and hope. At first glance, Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony appears to inhabit a very different kind of world, the central construct being a gruesome machine for the torture and execution of transgressing prisoners, the central character being an officer devoted to its maintenance and operation. However, from the grotesque context emerge not only themes of violence, degradation and obsession, but also of epiphany, transfiguration and redemption. The formal structure of the drama is also, clearly, something that was likely to appeal to the composer’s classicist sensibilities. Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto and stage directions follow Kafka’s original story closely, with the dialogue between the Officer and the Visitor (Explorer or Traveller in some translations) which makes up the majority of the text faithfully preserved, and the Visitor’s private thoughts becoming short soliloquies. The music, while consisting of recognisable Glass-isms from the start (minor triad-based oscillations, superimposition of simple and compound quaver rhythms, etc), keeps the main repetitive structures within the strings (reminiscent most of his Dracula quartet), allowing the voices freer and longer melodic lines than in much of the music mentioned above.

Glass describes In the Penal Colony, along with his other smaller-scale stage works (including Orphée, performed at the Linbury five years ago) as “pocket operas”, requiring only a few performers and “sets you could put in a couple of suitcases”. In director Michael McCarthy’s production with Music Theatre Wales, the four nameless characters (Visitor, Officer, Soldier and Condemned Man – of which only the first two are singing roles) are shrunk to three with the removal of the Soldier role, an excision which in fact makes very little difference. Also on stage and visible throughout, positioned behind the dramatic arena, are the six musicians – string quintet and conductor Michael Rafferty. Simon Banham’s set, while not quite fitting in a suitcase, is spare in the extreme, consisting of table, chair and ladder, plus a few small props. This may be disappointing for those hoping to see a full physical recreation of the magnificent flaying machine, but the aim is (as I understand it) to provoke the audience to exercise their own imaginations and picture the horrors so vividly described by the Officer. In Joanne Akalaitis’s 2001 New York production, the emphasis on the fictional nature of the events portrayed was enhanced by the addition of Kafka himself (or rather, an actor playing Kafka) scribbling in notebooks and reading journal fragments; not having been present for that performance I cannot make a fully informed judgment on the idea, but am, on the whole, glad that this was not the case here. Perhaps surprisingly, the visible string players did not ground one in the reality of sitting in a theatre, watching the telling of a story, but rather had something of a Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps feel, musicians imprisoned in a concentration camp, playing to the end.

Omar Ebrahim brought a hysterical, flashing-eyed zeal to the role of the Officer, first lovingly describing his machine and his idolised Old Commander who created it, declaiming with missionary fervour its power to bring enlightenment to criminals and the community, desperately begging the Visitor to help save it (and him), and, on realising his era was ending, seeking his own redemption – unsuccessfully – by offering himself as the machine’s final victim. Ebrahim’s secure, full-throated baritone rang out powerfully, but he also produced a gentle, lyrical tone in both upper and lower registers during certain more contemplative moments. Particularly interesting was the way he and the strings shifted between more vigorously rhythmic and more romantically legato versions of the same melodic figures. The machine, of course, is horrible, and its creator sadistic, but for a while we see/hear them via the Officer’s loving eye.

Michael Bennett had perhaps the more difficult character in which to convince, the sociologist Visitor being a fine example of Kafkaian moral ambiguity: first bored and disdainful, perpetually uncomfortable, and while he eventually takes a stand against the execution of the Condemned Man (although approving that of the Officer), seems to do so more in distaste and embarrassment than ethical imperative. In the early scenes, there were distinct balance issues between Bennett and the gorgeously rich and full-toned lower strings, with him appearing and disappearing in the ‘mix’ while singing, but this acoustic problem did not persist (and I gather was not a problem at all from other parts of the auditorium). At the start he was also a somewhat uneven in tone, but this may have been a function of the dynamics, as his sound became fuller, smoother and with a particularly pleasing purity in the higher-lying passages. The opera does not contain arias in the traditional sense, but the moments in which the Visitor reflects by himself – with growing intensity of feeling – were very fine. I often find it difficult to make out singers’ words, so the fact that both Bennett and Ebrahim were so clear in their enunciation was a definite bonus.

The Condemned Man, a dumb presence throughout, was inhabited with unnerving intensity by Gerald Tyler. Like an abused dog, he cringed when struck, beamed with thankfulness at being given a scrap of food, gazed at the two men in hopeless desperation to understand, and, grotesquely, sometimes copied the Officer’s gestures in a pathetic attempt to please.

After so much abstract or indirect portrayal, it was quite a shock, when the Officer finally sets the (invisible) machine upon himself, to suddenly have very visible blood spraying and splashing on his back. Although the denouement is certainly shocking, and intentionally so, I found this sudden leap into realism rather jarring. Also, while I liked Sound Intermedia’s threatening industrial hum in the background, the explicit grinding and dripping noises seemed somewhat bolted-on. However, these are small points. Overall, the production was visually effective and musically interesting throughout. While I have difficulty seeing it winning over new fans to Philip Glass or contemporary chamber opera, those familiar with the genre should definitely take advantage of the rare opportunity to hear this work.

Music Theatre Wales’s production of In the Penal Colony will be touring until 17 November.

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

 

Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

 

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.]

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