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.]

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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