Timely Intensity: Glass' Satyagraha at the English National Opera

Though I am familiar with Philip Glass' musical style and his immense impact on the world of opera and classical music at large, I have never viewed or attended a performance of one of his operas and was quite excited to do so. This production is shared by several opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, and is quite excellent. While I thought some of the typical Glass musical elements could have been pushed even a bit further here, the performance was quite good and, of course, mesmeric. This performance was given the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. Someone took the stage before the performance began and lead a one minute (really two minutes) standing period moment of silence. The trifecta of Gandhi on stage singing, Martin Luther King on stage acting, and Mandela in our minds was reflectively poignant. 

General information & synopsis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha_(opera)

Satyagraha | Philip Glass

Director | Phelim McDermott
Associate Director & Set Designer | Julian Crouch
Production Reviver | Peter Relton
Costume Designer | Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer | Paul Constable
Lighting Reviver | Kevin Sleep
Video Designer | Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer for 59 Productions, Ltd.
Video Reviver | Lysander Ashton
Choreographer & Puppeteer | Rob Thirtle

M.K. Gandhi | Alan Oke
Miss Schlesen | Clare Eggington
Mrs. Naidoo | Janis Kelly
Kasturbai | Stephanie Marshall
Mr. Kallenbach | Nicholas Folwell
Pasri Rustomji | Nicholas Masters
Mrs. Alexander | Sarah Pring
Prince Arjuna | Eddie Wade
Lord Krishna | Nicholas Masters

Conductor | Stuart Stratford
Assistant Conductor | Nicholas Ansdell-Evans
Concert Master | Philip White
Orchestra and Chorus of, and actors for, the English National Opera
In lieu of my usual method of reviewing a production and its principal singers, comprimario performers, ensemble, conductor, etc. individually, I will review this production in strict chronological order following my notes. To break it down in the normal way seems to impose too much of the wrong kind of order onto Glass' music! It will also be in past tense and more personal, though I've been trying to write reviews in present tense, even if the show is no longer running. My first basic observation was that the set, with newspapers, so essential to the bloodless revolution in India, scattered over the floor floor and the broad, corrugated arc around back with doors set into it were very fitting for the show. It set the action firmly within a nebulous space, leaving it open with few set pieces or props but still giving it definition. The broad arc behind helped to create a sense of holiness or sanctity to the piece.
During Act I things started off a bit slow in the field of justice. I think perhaps I was not yet adjusted to the Glass music, after having seen Puccini, Wagner, and Mozart just previously. Still, I was left with the sense that perhaps things could have started off with a bit more of a push, theatrically, as even the clothing and set were a bit bland (though wisely period accurate for the former and abstract for the latter). During Act I, scene i I was curious if Alan Oke (Gandhi) was off a bit musically as, in duets, he seemed to disagree with the duet partner. I do not know the piece well enough, however, to say for sure. I found the Tolstoy farm, scene ii to be a minor improvement in terms of interest. It was not until scene iii, though, the Satyagrahi vow, that I found the production to take off. At this point it became incredibly rhapsodic, with the Satyagrahi raising hands just before the sudden cutoff in Glass' music. With everyone ringed around the half-circle backdrop of the set, the effect was mesmeric and chilling, yet still heart-warming. I walked away from the performance most impressed by this scene as the original music, the production, the directing, and the performances on stage truly brought me into a ritual and made me feel as though I were a part of it.
In Act II the opening confrontation and rescue scene was exciting, with fascinating puppetry that, I believe, represents the overlords against whom Gandhi and the Satyagrahi were protesting. The rescue scene, also, held the appropriate sympathy. Alan Oke played the long periods of silence for Gandhi superbly, still drawing the eye and managing to exude a sense of historical accuracy mixed with dramatic pathos. As Mrs. Alexander Sarah Pring seemed to lose the thread of the music for a time, very obviously looking continually at the conductor, but again, not knowing the work well enough I would not comment definitively.
In scene ii the use of newspapers of varying lengths helped to continue the abstract yet affecting atmosphere of the production. The passing of short newspapers between Satyagrahi represented the actual creation, while long uncut sheets waving about before attaching to the side of the stage and finally migrating onto Gandhi himself served as a subtle but important commentary on Gandhi's importance to the movement. As they writhed around on the chorus members, a sense of the unity of the movement was also expressed. Finally, in the third scene the protest, the pace of the introduction of abstract concepts increased, effectively creating a climax for the act. The combination of increased use of light (including candlelight) and earth imagery as well as a woman on the fly system helped to give visual expression to the dichotomy in the music between cello obbligato. The entire scene has a sense of increasing pressure, a hallmark of Glass, if rarely expressed in those words. Finally, a pyre at the end brought this to a climax with Krishna's appearance and Gandhi and his attendees focused on the fire in the center of the stage.
Act III begins with its long quintet. With everyone facing the proscenium it once again felt like perhaps the theatricality could have spiced up the music. Given that the characters are on a long march, however, it is perhaps appropriate both for the music and the staging to represent this. As tape winds back and forth, iridescent and gossamer, behind and between the characters onstage before becoming an entangle web, however, the beauty is in the "set" itself, regardless of how interesting the characters, still producing the music, are. Representatively, we see the web of factors getting tighter, leading to the ultimate outcome in India. At the very end Martin Luther King is pontificating facing away and Gandhi is singing while other aspects, such as a suspended woman and the set pieces breaking away to offer an increasingly bright cloudy sky. This helps to once again juxtapose the stasis of Glass' music with actions onstage, before both collide. This scene, in particular, had resonance with Mandela's death.

The above is, admittedly, a somewhat rambling description of my thoughts on the staging and the production as a whole. As for the musicianship and acting, the cast was generally stellar, with perhaps a few musical slip ups. Most centrally, Alan Oke's acting superbly embodies Gandhi while still playing to the abstract rhapsody of Glass' music, enhanced by the production. Perhaps my only musical complaint, inspired by a comment I heard while leaving the theatre, was that the orchestra built up neither as convincingly nor with as much bass as they might have in the last act, something essential to bring Glass' style to fruition. Stuart Stratford's conducting is certainly generally quite good, but this scene, one of the most essential, felt a bit wanting in intensity.

Satyagraha is a difficult opera to tackle conceptually, to perform onstage, and, I'm finding, to review. Phelim McDermott's production is truly mind-blowing. It is so ideally suited to Glass' music and to Satyagraha specifically that I find it hard to conceive of a different production (inexperienced as I am with the opera). Though there were moments that seemed a bit dull, the performers in English National Opera's revival took full advantage of this to create a production that had rhapsodically beautiful moments, made all the more moving by current events.


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