Inspired Choral Singing in Glass’s Indian Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glass, Satyagraha (sung in Saskrit):  Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor), London Coliseum, 20.11.2013 (CC)

M. K. Gandhi: Alan Oke
Mrs Naidoo: Janis Kelly
Kasturbai: Stephanie Marshall
Mrs Alexander: Sarah Pring
Miss Schlesen: Clare Eggington
Mr Kallenbach: Nicholas Folwell
Parsi Rustomji/Lord Krishna: Nicholas Masters
Prince Arjuna: Eddie Wade

Director: Phelim McDermott
Associate Designer/ Set Designer:   Julian Crouch

Phelim McDermott staging of Philip Glass’s magnificent edifice of an opera, Satyagraha (1979, to a libretto by Constance DeJong), was first seen at ENO in 2007, reviewed by my colleague Anne Ozorio; in 2010, it was Gavin Dixon who made the trip to St Martin’s Lane.

Satyagraha is sung in Sanskrit (the title means “truth-force”) with no surtitles. Projected quotations help to explain the actions, though, and there are long static portions, as one might reasonably expect from a minimalist opera. The use of an ancient language has a distancing effect (Glass’ next opera, remember, Akhnaten, was set in the Egypt of the Pharoahs, a setting that again takes us to a space – this time a physical place – far removed from now). The combination of sung Sanskrit and lack of translation may go some way to leaving the audience at sea linguistically, yet, perhaps surprisingly,  it works extremely well,  aided on this occasion by the superb performance standard of both English National Opera Orchestra and, in particular, the English National Opera Chorus. The chorus plays a vital part in Satyagraha, and to hear the ENO forces at the peak of their powers simply reinforced what we really knew all along – that the chorus is actually the jewel of the Coliseum.

The opera centres on Gandhi’s early years in South Africa and his resistance to the race laws there. Over each act, a significant historical oversees the action, one each for past, present and future: Tolstoy, Tagore and (Martin Luther) King. In the first two acts, the figures are seen in windows high up on the back of the stage, hovering presences; for the final act, King stands high on a podium, in silhouette and making slowed-down movements as he (silently) delivers a speech.

Perhaps it is the lyricism of Glass’ music that impresses most. It seems to imply that the subject is close to the composer’s heart. Right from the first note, the very individual world of Philip Glass was established, hypnotic and compelling. The challenges to the musicians are not only huge but require the players to step into a specific mindset, and it is to the eternal credit of ENO’s orchestra and the conductor Stuart Stratford, that concentration dropped not one iota all night. Stratford was able, too, to judge Glass’ crescendi (over extended time-spans) to perfection, laying bare the overarching structure of the music; yet the minutiae of the faster repetitive cells were so accurate as to imply a parallel micromanagement of the moment. There was a beautiful transparency to the orchestra, too, that seemed perfect for Glass’ often fragile textures.

Phelim McDermott’s production (for ENO and the Met, New York) is stunning in its effective use of space and gesture. The silhouette of Martin Luther King that forms the backdrop of the final act is but one memorable instance. Battles are enacted by huge puppets, disturbing yet exciting in their dominance of the stage. There is the true sense that the placement of every element is the result of long and profound thought, and certainly there is no hint of contradiction between imagery used, the speed the action unfolds at and the music we hear. Gandhi’s struggle, his growth into his true being (a type of enlightenment, surely) and, by the end, his ascension into almost a parallel space is the journey that we, the audience, is privileged to share. The final, seemingly unending repetitions of an eight-note scale in a state of near transcendence, is a masterstroke by Glass and was impeccably managed on this occasion. Alan Oke was in fine form throughout, and particularly in the opera’s final stretches. The role is not one that requires the singer to be front-stage soloist throughout – often in the first two acts Gandhi is part of ensembles. Two female singers stand out for comment: Sarah Pring’s Mrs Alexander and Janis Kelly’s Mrs Naidoo.

We are a long way here from Glass’ opera on Walt Disney, The Perfect Stranger, the UK premiere of which was reviewed by myself recently. The deep historical resonances, which extend back, in the first act, to the figures from Hindu legend of Arjuna and Krishna, reinforce the impression that Glass, like Gandhi, is talking in universal truths. Reference to deity becomes unsurprising in Glass’ vision: out-of-time entities represented by music that seeks itself to loosen the bonds of temporality toward a transcendent other.

Colin Clarke

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