I would like some of what Philip Glass is on, please. I would like to crawl into his brain for a few hours and see what makes him tick. In the ENO’s production of Satyagraha, the American composer’s operatic masterpiece has been placed in the capable hands of director Phelim McDermott and designer Julian Crouch (I’d like some of what they’re on too.) Throw in the utterly brilliant conductor Karen Kamensek and Toby Spence in the lead role, and you’re in for a sensory treat which is pretty bonkers. You’ll walk out of the London Coliseum thinking you’ve had the mother of all Ayurvedic head massages.
So what’s Satyagraha all about? I am not entirely sure, but it doesn’t really matter. On the one hand, the opera is a sensory slap-in-the-face, a weave of large-scale projection, corrugated iron and giant, often grotesque, papier-machée puppetry. On the other hand, it’s hauntingly meditative, spellbinding and utterly beautiful.
Satyagraha was a concept coined by Ghandi during his fight against colonial oppression. It translates as “truth force.” Those who follow Satyagraha use non-violent means to conquer evil and to convert those who work against them. In 1979, Philip Glass translated the concept into an opera, set in three acts and with Ghandi’s formative years in South Africa as its central theme.
It explores Ghandi’s development of “truth force,” the three segments representing the past, the present and the future. Leo Tolstoy, who was a great influence on Ghandi, is the figurehead in Act 1. Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and Ghandi’s contemporary, represents the present in Act 2. Fast forward to the 1960s and enter Martin Luther King (Satyagraha would become a main component in Martin Luther King ‘s civil rights movement in the 1960s). And so the cycle of Satyagraha continues in the present and into the future.
So, back to Philip Glass. He’s produced 21 operas, reams of orchestral music and some memorable film scores (he won an Academy Award for The Hours). His music is described as minimalist and it’s known for being repetitive and trance-like. Satyagraha has become one of the most popular contemporary operas ever staged at the ENO, now in its third revival here.
Considering the ENO stages its operas in English, it was surprising to me that Satyagraha was in full-fat Sanskrit with no surtitles. But did it matter? Not really. I was in a trance within minutes, and let’s face it, when you have “Ha, Ha, Ha” sung for a full-blown twenty minutes, it’s all double dutch right?
British tenor Toby Spence was unrecognisable as Mahatma Ghandi, and he was magnificent. There’s a luminosity about him as you watch Ghandi grow in stature, his facial expressions morphing from nothingness to illumination. I was delighted to see that Spence seems to have made a full recovery from his thyroid cancer (I think we all held our collective breaths when he coughed a few times at the end).
In the end, it dawned on me that Philip Glass is to opera what Jamie XX is to clubland and what Wayne McGregor is to ballet. He’s weird, he’s wonderful, and you don’t need drugs to get off on what he’s dishing out.
Satyagraha is on at the ENO until 27 Feb. The performance lasts approximately 3 hours and 10 minutes with two intervals.
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