ENO is back doing what it does best: Phelim McDermott’s astonishingly effective production of Satyagraha

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glass, Satyagraha (sung in Sanskrit): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Carolyn Kuan (conductor). London Coliseum, London, 16.10.2021. (CC)

(l-r) James Cleverton, Verity Wingate, Gabriella Cassidy, Sean Panikkar, William Thomas, Felicity Buckland (c) Tristram Kenton

Director – Phelim McDermott
Associate director & Set designer – Julian Crouch
Revival director – Peter Relton
Costumes – Kevin Pollard
Lighting – Paule Constable
Video – Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer (for 59 Productions)

M. K. Gandhi – Sean Panikkar
Miss Schlesen – Gabriella Cassidy
Mrs Naidoo – Verity Wingate
Kasturbai – Felicity Buckland
Mr Kallenbach – James Cleverton
Mrs Alexander – Sarah Pring
Prince Arjuna – Ross Ramgobin
Parsi Rustomji – William Thomas
Lord Krishna – Musa Ngqungwana

Wonderful to return to the London Coliseum; and to experience what English National Opera does best, the music of Philip Glass. ENO has a very strong relationship. First performed in the UK in 2007, it returned in 2010 before I reviewed it in 2013 (review click here) and again in (review click here).

Phelim McDermott’s production remains astonishingly effective. Projected texts onto the stage act in lieu of surtitles, while the massive puppets (directed by Rob Thirtle) and the Video Design (59 Productions) remains constant. The idea that change comes from the small and not the large, from the ordinary person, is at the core of the concept of Satyagraha, which means ‘truth-force’, an unwavering belief that truth will be victorious regardless of circumstance. It is a timeless message (some might say incredibly relevant right now); certainly, the power of the message seemed ratcheted up as one basked in the ability just to return to St Martin’s Lane.

Sean Pannikar and ENO Chorus (c) Tristram Kenton

The production seems to gain in power on each viewing. Hypnotic linearities seem to parallel the musical lines from the pit; the larger-than-life puppets remain stunning; the ritualised movements of Martin Luther King retain their poignancy. The newspapers – transmitters of ideas, facts and falsehoods alike then as now, remain a vital part of the stagecraft as inanimate objects pile together to resemble the animate.

Before considering the singers, the orchestra and conductor need mention and praise: lots of unstinting, continued praise. The demands of Glass’s writing on orchestral players are vast and, importantly, significantly different from the norm. To have strings and wind playing the same phrase repeatedly, perfectly in tempo, perfectly together, perfectly in tune time after time after time, is no mean feat (statistically improbable, even). And yet there it was, a testament perhaps to the esteem in which the orchestra holds the conductor, Carolyn Kuan. Her sense of rhythm, too, is rock steady, and it is upon that that Glass’s cumulative scenes rest. Act II contains huge contrasts, from massive walls of sound to chamber-like strings just oscillating dyads; what was telling was that the quieter dynamics counted just as much as the louder ones.

It is interesting to compare what one heard at the Coliseum with the first recording of the opera (New York City Opera, CBS/Sony). At ENO there was an extra layer of expressivity, of humanity; the CBS is deliberately mechanical almost, the recording clinical and very close. Hearing the opera in the opera house adds extra levels of emotive depth: the ultra-rapid repetitions of Lord Krishna’s aria in the first act, for example. The Krishna here was Musa Ngqungwana, superb in delivery, strong in stage presence.

Just as Glass’s music ‘repeats’ (better, shifts constantly, but gradually), so the three acts are variations on a theme, repeated acts – in both senses – of non-violence. The figure of Martin Luther King in the final act, repeatedly slowly raising his hands to make a point in a speech, brings minimalism to gesture; the figures of Tolstoy and Tagore hover behind the first and second acts, seen through elevated windows.

The opening aria of Act I (‘Tolstoy’ – The Kuru Field of Justice) finds Gandhi singing an expressive aria; in fact, the opera begins with his voice alone, just three descending notes, before the orchestra enters with its repeated (but always slightly altered) figures. The role of Gandhi has attracted such figures as Toby Spence (2018) and Alan Oke (2013). Here it was the turn of tenor Sean Pannikar, a singer who seems to favour music of the 20th and 21st centuries as after this run he sings the Drum Major (Wozzeck) in Vienna at the Staatsoper (next March), and he just sang in Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960 in Salzburg, as interestingly did Ngqungwana. His tireless voice was stunning from that exposed opening right until the final moments. Panikkar’s voice is sweet-toned and, when combined with the plaintive lines of the score and a low-vibrato delivery, the effect is remarkable: blanched, almost.

As Arjuna, baritone Ross Ramgobin – in another Coliseum debut – was splendid. It is fair to say there was not a single weak link in the cast, in fact, although possibly the most imposing assumption apart from Panikkar’s was Sarah Pring’s determined Mrs Alexander (Act II Scene 1; I note I had also singled her out for especial comment in 2013). Current ENO Harewood Artist, British bass William Thomas made a notable Coliseum live debut as Parsi Rustomji (described in the libretto as ‘Indian co-worker’) as did the strong soprano Gabriella Cassidy as Miss Schlesen (Gandhi’s secretary).

As so often, the ENO Chorus was resplendent. They have plenty to do in this opera, and much is rousing. The cross-rhythms of the fast opening to the second act (‘Confrontation and Rescue’) was stunningly achieved; no less so was the stark juxtaposition Kuan achieved with Glass’s kaleidoscopic panel that follows. The countermelody to those churning circles was, in Kuan’s hands, long-limbed, almost Romantic.

Like Satyagraha, Akhnaten is a known quantity at ENO. But the five-hour, interval less(!) Einstein on the Beach, the third of this operatic trilogy, was put on at the Barbican in 2012 but not subsequently. Time for a revival?

Colin Clarke

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