English National Opera, 27th February 2018
Finally I have got to see all three of Philip Glass’s seminal operas, Einstein on the Beach (the science-y one), Akhnaten (the religious one) and now this Satyagraha (the political one). Einstein on the Beach was a recreation of the original Robert Wilson production at the Barbican a few years ago. Gruelling in places, daft as well, and it looked pretty lo-fi. Akhnaten, also at the ENO with substantially the same creative team, looked and sounded sublime, but overall I was middle-whelmed. And so it was with Satyagraha. Improbable’s staging certainly tops the already lofty heights they achieved in Akhnaten, and there was probably more to the story unfolding in Sanskrit, but the pleasure, and marginal pain, derived by this observer was not dissimilar.
Since I can’t really imagine more committed advocates than this creative team for these two operas I think I have to conclude that, if pushed, I prefer my Glass in other formats. Like the string quartets or the works for keyboards. That’s a terrible admission isn’t it. Anyway probably as well I know now as Mr Glass has written a fair few operas, 29 and counting, including the chamber works. Mind you he has been pretty busy across all genres. He’s already snuck in another string quartet this year for example I see. Anyway the profligacy of PG is both joy and curse for the committed fan of minimalism, or, as he terms it, repetitive music.
There is no doubt that there is a unique pleasure in succumbing to its hypnotic effect. Hearing the structures slowly change as the notes are added or subtracted. Melodies, motifs and harmonies appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Wave upon wave of sound, altering, circling, revisiting, but never really getting anywhere. Timeless. Meditative. All transcendent when it’s just you and the music. But with opera the whole point is to witness the music interact with the drama. And this is where the disconnect emerges. If you succumb solely to the music then the visual spectacle risks taking too much of a back seat. There is way too much stagecraft trickery to admire here though to permit drifting off into an hypnotic trance. Who would have thought so much could be done with papier-mache and sellotape? Yet the structure and pace of PG’s score, the episodic structure of the “action”, largely based on key events in the struggle for emancipation by Indians in South Africa, led by Gandhi, and the Sanskrit text, all make for very static human tableaux. And a lot of slow motion shuffling.
A spell is cast but there are times when it might be nice to be snapped out of the soporific contemplation into some high drama. Having influences on Gandhi past, present and future, in the form of Tolstoy, then Rabindranath Tagore, and finally Martin Luther King, lurking at the back of the set isn’t quite enough, and the wow moments as Improbable make newspaper come to life, create gods and monsters before our eyes or bring crowd scenes to life, don’t always articulate with the, you guessed it, non-linear story (based on my reading of the synopsis).
Still admire the parts. The marvellous chorus and orchestra led by Glass expert Karen Kamensek, (as in Akhnaten), moulded PG’s musical shapes effortlessly. I didn’t know that I had seem Improbable’s work before in a very different context, namely Lost Without Words at the National Theatre, improv theatre from a cast of older actors, which worked a bit better than I might have expected. AD’s Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, and here associate Julian Crouch, don’t lack for imagination or, based on Satyagraha, brilliance of execution. The go-to team for video design, 59 Productions, also leave their mark. Toby Spence gives us the Gandhi of myth, standing stock still for long periods, then bursting into his sumptuous tenor, but no sign of the man himself. The rest of the cast have even less opportunity to shape characterisation beyond the puppets they share the stage with. They all sounded great to me though, especially soprano Charlotte Beament, as Gandhi’s assistant.
The central message of Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word which Gandhi defined as “holding on to truth”, and which underpinned his theory and praxis of nonviolence, does sort of emerge from the production, but a bit of reading around, before and after, helps. The denial of self, the power of the collective, the effectiveness of planned and self-critical resistance. Think of this as a project. Put a bit of effort in and you might just learn something.
Or just do what I suspect the majority of the packed house at the ENO were doing, (this has been revived thrice, it is so “popular”). Gaze and listen in wonder and don’t get antsy about the fact it is all over the shop. At the end of the day the ENO has its hit and this, with its predecessor, is pulling in all sorts of punters who might, rightly in my view, give a wide berth to Verdi and Puccini.
Mind you I reckon this new generation of Glass converts might draw the line at the 5 hours of hippyish clap-trap that is Einstein on the Beach.