Satyagraha at the English National Opera
This incredible opera written by Philip Glass had its world premiere in 1980 in Rotterdam and its UK premiere in Bath in 1997. Its main commissioning in the UK was an incredible production at the English National Opera in 2007, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Opera New York, with the Director Phelim McDermott and his Improbable team in charge.
The opera is in three Acts, each referencing a major cultural figure: Act 1 being Leo Tolstoy, Act 2 being Rabindranath Tagore and Act 3 being Martin Luther King. The opera is loosely based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi and is the second part of Glass’s portrait trilogy of operas about men who changed the world. The title refers to Gandhi’s concept of non-violent resistance to injustice and is sung in the original Sanskrit language.
The title role of Gandhi is sung by the British tenor, Toby Spence, who has taken over this role from the wonderful Alan Oke - who sang the role in the premiere of this production. Despite being diagnosed with thyroid cancer a number of years ago, he has subsequently gone on to perform from strength-to-strength and gives a very fulsome and lyric rendition of the role, albeit with the occasional struggle at times to achieve the clarity and beauty of line required for this part. He is basically on stage for the whole of the opera. It is an enormous role and one wonders how much better his performance really can become. A wonderful performance from a wonderful artist.
The music is of course minimalist in conception, although during the writing of Satyagraha, Philip Glass was looking at including harmony once more and therefore there are clear rich and reflective tones that emanate from the orchestra during all three Acts. The music is incredibly accessible – sometimes hauntingly so - however difficult it is to sing, because of the constant repetitiveness of the score.
The orchestra is led by the American Philip Glass specialist Conductor, Karen Kamensek. Her pacing of the music was outstanding, with constant help for the singers during some of their difficult passages. This was an exceptional evening musically with a fulsome cast supporting Toby Spence, including the Krishna of Andri Bjorn Robertsson, who is an outstanding prospect as an ENO Harewood artist.
But the evening belongs to the Director, Phelim McDermott. The precision with which he and his associate Director, Julian Crouch, set their staging, is in a manner which only enhances the music by intertwining the visual puppetry and scenery with the repetitive nature of the score. It is an outstanding concept and a truly outstanding visual centrepiece to the whole opera. Nobody can be bored, despite the constant return of musical lines.
Truly a must see opera.