Philip Glass' late 70s' opera Satyagraha is set in South Africa where a young Mahatma Gandhi first started to explore the idea of using peaceful protest as a political tool for change. The whole piece is in Sanskrit, there were no subtitles and as my knowledge about the actual events is minimal it was hard to get any useful narrative angle on it. An attempt to figure it out through a helpful synopsis of the libretto in the programme also failed: "My very being is oppressed with compassion's harmful taint..." What? So the only option was to do what Philip Glass would have wanted instead – to let the experience wash over me and lie back and think of India.
This did not turn out to be that easy in the first act, which at times was a confusion of ‘Mary Poppins' versus orange and pink peasants, the oppressive corrugated iron set with sections moving to reveal a lofty ante-room where a bearded man watched the proceedings, enormous, ingenious puppets (an oddly realistic cow head was a favourite), stark lighting and a lot of newspaper. Very stressful. The acoustics seemed to be off too – all a bit muffled and lacking punch, and definitely more akin to a dirge.
Thrown in for good measure, some of Gandhi's quotes were projected in English against the imposing set. This almost ruined everything as it felt old fashioned and a little unsophisticated and didn't do much in the way of explaining either. But worst of all, the words distracted from the sound and vision by using what felt like the exact opposite part of my brain; I couldn't get a grip of such elevated thoughts, let alone apply their meaning to the rest of the piece.
This elicited distinctly non-Gandhi violent impulses in me. "The Emperor's New Clothes," I thought, until a little while before the first interval where I was hooked back from an imaginary slink towards the exit as a the whole cast hung their coats one by one onto a flock of hangers which then rose up and floated like ghosts above the stage to the accompaniment of fifty chanting voices. I showed my commitment by ordering a drink for the second interval too.
The rest of the piece was immersive and hypnotic, the Second Act opening with a chorus of men's taunting mantra "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha" with the restless unmistakable trills of Glass menacing beneath, escalating to beautiful and terrible violence. The staging was immaculately planned which, at times, felt too deliberate, but there were moments of delight as props were unexpectedly and deftly repurposed, occasionally transforming into mythical beasts quickly to return to mundane baskets and umbrellas.
The traditional opera voices were at odds with the saris and the Sanskrit, but the voice of soprano Clare Eggington, in the role of Miss Schlesen, Gandhi's secretary, was completely breathtaking and exhilarating – a beautiful ultraviolin – maybe the sound a siren might make. The repetitive, throbbing, meditative soundscape and repeated visual and musical motifs moved me – words and meaning merely got in the way.
Self-indulgent and at times too clever, but also beautiful, surprising, meditative and a complete spectacle, I'm not sure it's an experience that bears repeating, but it was a privilege to have been part of the experience.
- Denise Flower
Satyagraha runs at ENO until 8 December.