A popular contemporary opera? An oxymoron, no? There are, of course, many music enthusiasts that would run a mile from Philip Glass in the cinema, or the concert hall, let alone in the opera house. But English National Opera’s production of Glass’ Satyagraha in 2007 smashed box-office records for a contemporary opera and proved a critical and commercial success, attracting first-time opera-goers as much as anyone else.
Now Phelim McDermott’s production, conceived by the British theatre company Improbable, has returned for its first revival under director David Kneuss.
Although the opera focuses on Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa and his development of the satyagraha – or “truth force” – philosophy, it is dependent on a non-linear narrative. Each of the three acts is driven by a ‘spiritual guardian’ from the past, present and future: Tolstoy, the Indian mystic and poet Tagore and finally Martin Luther King. And within these acts each scene presents itself as a meditation, a self-sufficient study of ideas. All this is entirely suited to Glass’ score, in which themes develop in a cyclical way – always clear and often with a mantra–like insistence.
Much of the success of this production is due to the return of the original Gandhi interpretation from Alan Oke. Not only is Oke’s physical characterisation entirely convincing but his tenor is pure and uncompromised by flashy effect, and therefore in perfect keeping with the nature of the vocal line. Elsewhere there are impressive performances from Elena Xanthoudakis as Mrs Schlesen and Janis Kelly as Mrs Naidoo. A skills ensemble from Improbable achieve amazing things on stage using the simplest means: newspapers stream up and down, and bundle into giant puppets, and animals appear out of a collection of wicker baskets.
The libretto is formed from sections of the Bhagavad Gita and – exceptionally for the Coliseum – the text is not translated and it is sung in the original Sanskrit. The chorus play an integral role in Satyagraha and they sang with power and clarity, and conductor Stuart Stratford maintained the momentum throughout. I just have to question whether the whole evening could have been even more potent if it settled around two hours instead of pushing three and a half hours.