Satyagraha at ENO

Assembled from selected phrases of the Baghavada-Gita by librettist Constance de Jong, the
opera was performed here entirely in unsurtitled Sanskrit, contrary to ENO’s “everything in
English” policy. Presumably the thinking was that if a native English speaker chooses to write an
opera in the language of the subject matter, then keeping the original language is key to
preserving the integrity of the piece. In fact the entire libretto consists of just eighteen paragraphs
of text, so along with the undulating repetitiveness of the score, each scene seems to hang
entranced in mid-air. The work is, after all, a sequence of vast portraits of the promotion of
passivity, rather than a living drama. A synopsis was supplied in the programme; however it
provided context rather than actual plot.

The giant curved structure of the set was used to represent something between a holy book and a
political memoir, by means of projected text and textual ornament which turned it from a
corrugated-iron wall into an illuminated page. To this and the blank canvas of Glass’s music, the
performance-art group Improbable brought their stunning brand of performance art, stilt-walking,
aerobatics and puppetry. Scattered news pages and swathes of tape were formed into giant
moving creatures, gods and political figures, then evaporated into air just as quickly. Hindu gods
fought one another; giant grotesque figures walked amongst the buildings of a more modern
world. And still the musical inertia continued.

Even within its stylistic context (that is to say, assuming that as an audience member one can
absorb such a lengthy musical work where very little happens) the piece itself has structural
failings, most noticeably the hole created by an over-long instrumental interlude preceding
Gandhi’s Prayer in the third act.

The singing was of an exceptional standard almost throughout. Besides Alan Oke’s sincere,
other-worldly tenor in the focal role of Gandhi, a large share of the credit should be given to
conductor Johannes Debus and to ENO’s terrific chorus, particularly the men, who exhibited
impressive rhythmic control as Act 2’s collective voice of complacent greed. Most of the
principal cast were company regulars, although in her ENO debut as Miss Schlesen, the
Greek-Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis made a hugely positive impression, with a secure
purity to her meaty top notes. Indeed there were few vocal weaknesses — Jean Rigby’s Mrs
Alexander had problems making herself audible, and Janis Kelly’s Mrs Naidoo experienced
some intonation problems in her duet with Anne-Marie Gibbons’ Kasturbai.

This staging is a co-production with the Met, where it will be presented this time next year – and
like ENO’s last Met collaboration (Anthony Minghella’s cinematically beautiful Madama
Butterfly in 2005) is a visually breathtaking piece of theatre. Glass’s score, on the other hand, is
more of an issue. It certainly creates a powerful atmosphere — but at over three hours of scales
and repeated phrases, and with no character interaction or dialogue, can it even be thought of as
an opera?

Ruth Elleson ©2007

image_description=Mahatma Gandhi
product_title=Philip Glass: Satyagraha
English National Opera, 13 April 2007
product_by=Click here for Satyagraha mini-site.