Satyagraha at the London Coliseum review: A magnificent spectacle
too many opera staging offers only a picturesque backdrop in front of which the singers are agitated and strutting about. Every now and then, however, a production comes along that is so sensitive to music and drama that, at least as we watch, it becomes one with the work it is putting on. This is what it seems with Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha in 1980, first seen at the English National Opera in 2007.
Neither the opera nor the directing tells a story directly, but there is a narrative. Satyagraha (the title means “force of truth” in Sanskrit) is the second opera in Glass’s “portrait trilogy”: the other sections focus on Einstein and the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton. His subject – if not too prescriptive a word – is Gandhi and how his ideas about nonviolent resistance developed during his years in South Africa around the turn of the 20th century.
Glass’s approach is oblique but compelling. The libretto, assembled with Constance De Jong, is inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and is sung in Sanskrit, with no translation provided: it shouldn’t work but it does. As always, Glass’s music, both orchestral and vocal, is slow, undulating and insistent, not based on melody but always melodic. Some find the results unbearable, but if you indulge in them, the effect is, almost literally, spellbinding. In the pit, conductor Carolyn Kuan maintains a firm pulse and neat sonic gradation, while the nine-cast and powerful ENO chorus give every note the weight of an opera. There is no weak link, but the outstanding performance is Sean Panikkar as Gandhi, an embodiment of noble intensity.
This corresponds to the production. McDermott reduces the Colosseum scene by means of a semi-circular wall but it remains a huge arena. He fills it with a carnival cavalcade of striking images which sometimes illustrate, sometimes echo and sometimes prolong the action. Much of this is generated by a skilled ensemble deploying waders and puppeteers to play as monstrous creatures, both animal and human. There are also inventive video footage from 59 Productions and multiple tips with the newspapers, reminding us that they were an essential channel for spreading Gandhi’s ideas to South Africa, India and beyond.
Each of the three acts of the opera takes its title from a character – Tolstoy, Tagore, Martin Luther King – who inspired or was inspired by Gandhi. McDermott pays homage to each in turn by making an appearance on a raised dais at the back of the stage: they honor Glass’s design without adding much to the evening. In all respects it is a magnificent sight. It’s the perfect choice to mark ENO’s return to the Colosseum after a 19-month hiatus caused by a pandemic.