Monday 25 November 2013

Satyagraha – the oratorio

ENO SATYAGRAHA- Skills Ensemble and Alan Oke (c) Donald Cooper

Satyagraha- Skills Ensemble and Alan Oke (c) Donald Cooper

Satyagraha – holding onto truth or ‘truth force’ - was a term invented by Mohandas Gandhi to embody his belief that forms of persuasion that do not use physical force or cause suffering are more effective than violence. In a world where on every front page there continue to be wars and atrocities, with one group fighting or oppressing another, the hope that there should be another way is appealing. 

Satyagraha by Philip Glass (first performed in 1980 in Rotterdam) looks at the origins and the effects of Gandhi’s teaching. Events in Gandhi’s personal history are set into the lives of people whose teaching he influenced, Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King. This was Glass’s second opera and part of a trilogy looking at revolutionary ideas.

For me Satyagraha is an oratorio not an opera – and the version which premiered on Wednesday (19 November) at the ENO was no exception. Alan Oke was Ghandi with a cast including Janis Kelly, Stephanie Marshall, Nicholas Masters, Clare Eggington, Eddie Wade, Sarah Pring and  Nicholas Folwell, conducted by Stuart Stratford in a production directed by Phelim McDermot and designed by Julian Crouch. The performers, singers, actors, and puppeteers alike, all moved in slow motion, dulling any hint of physical drama. The ENO tried to offset the lack of action by the use of puppets and tableaux but, while these were imaginatively and quirkily done, without the programme notes it would be impossible to follow. Mostly the performers stand in a row and sing.

The physical transformations of the cast between acts were also confusing. The changes were sometimes so extreme, while the costumes in each setting were so similar, it was hard to follow who someone was, especially when they were in a scene but did not sing or interact, but just stood there smiling.

Additionally it is performed in Sanskrit without surtitles. Yes, some of the ideas are projected in English onto the back wall of the scenery – but if you are sitting somewhere where these cannot be seen (last time I saw it I was on the balcony and could only see a few of them) they, and the actors at the top of the scenery, may as well not be there.

ENO SATYAGRAHA- ENO Chorus, Alan Oke (c) Donald Cooper
Satygraha - ENO Chorus, Alan Oke (c) Donald Cooper
The ENO is normally very good at finding translations that make the libretto accessible and relevant – perhaps it is impossible to change the language and still have words fit the music, but there must be some way of making the text clear without expecting the audience to read up beforehand.

That said the singing was great and the music phenomenal. There were a few moments where tempo and pitch came a little unstuck, for example the ‘HaHa’ of the male chorus and the duet between Kasturbai and Mrs Naidoo, but, given the difficulty of Glass’ music, these were tiny, and probably first night glitches. The orchestra, held together by some very clear conducting from Stuart Stratford, did a great job.

Tenor Alan Oke, who played Gandhi, was more than up to the job of the central character. His smooth voice conveys subtleties without overindulgence, necessary for a man such as Gandhi, and given the limitations of the format his acting, from young man to old, was superb. Both he and Nicholas Masters, who plays Krishna, were memorable in Satyagraha the last time I saw it. Sarah Pring played the only really operatic part of Mrs Alexander outstandingly, and Clare Eggington, as Miss Schlesen, also deserves praise for her maintenance of the difficult high soprano line. Credit also to Janis Kelly as Mrs Naidoo, Stephanie Marshall as Kasturbai, and Nicholas Folwell asMr Kallenbach.

Glass’s score is almost meditational, with the orchestra having most of the movement, and the performers often in unison. The material used to provide the libretto (quotes from Bhagavad Gita) does not lend itself to flights of fancy - the most important moments are conveyed by increased aural pressure rather than tune, pitch, language, or emotion. Glass’s musical approach in Satyagraha is novel and challenging but allows the listener freedom to find their own way.

The production by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch called for a suitably minimalist stage, which the ENO is so good at. Use of corrugated tin and newspaper harked at the poverty of the oppressed and the ‘Indian Opinion’ used by the Satyagrahans.

The Skills Ensemble created some thought provoking, if a little whimsical and surreal, images that supported highlights of the plot and enhanced the spiritualism of the music. From giant puppets which transformed themselves from Hindu sacred animals into gods and wicker warriors, to a sellotape giant, the performers were always a delight. There was also a visually arresting scene involving most of the cast burning their ID cards in a giant floor pit.

Satyagraha is a serious look at serious issues and perhaps it could be argued that to dramatise them would be to cheapen them. But I would maintain that the excesses of opera are exactly the platform in which to bring understanding of these ideals to a modern audience. Clarity of language would be the first step.

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