Satyagraha, an opera in three acts by Philip Glass, libretto based on the Bhagavad Gita, directed by Phelim McDermott, conducted by Karen Kamensek, a collaboration with improbable, 3rd revival of ENO’s 2007 production, 1st February 2018, reviewed by LESLIE JONES
Charismatic conductor Karen Kamensek made her ENO debut in Phelim McDermott’s memorable 2016 revival of Akhnaten (see “Behold the Sun”, QR, March 6th, 2016). She evidently has an instinctive feel for composer Philip Glass’s “repetitive techniques”. For she understands the dramatic power of sudden increases or decreases of volume, but also of pregnant periods of silence, as in the striking opening scene of Act One, The Kuru Field of Justice.
With a running time of over three hours and a libretto in Sanskrit, based on the Bhagavad Gita, McDermott was understandably concerned to retain the audience’s attention, whether by means of puppetry or by striking changes of costume or by quotations from the ancient Hindu text translated into English that are projected onto the stage (see his revealing comments on page 26 of the official programme).
Julian Crouch’s austere, semi-circular set complements Glass’s minimalist score. The spectacle in Act 2, scene 3, Protest, of the cast dressed in white and holding lamps, brought Parsifal immediately to mind. Like Wagner, Glass has created a unique sound world, a latter day total art work (Gesamkunstwerk). He is manifestly fascinated by the forces that drive history.
This is Gandhi qua Hindu myth, Gandhi as a born again, Christ-like ascetic. His mentors, notably Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore, two of the so-called “icons”, are successively seated in an upper window of the set. However, the precise meaning of some of the symbolism, such as the clothes on hangers suspended on wires (shedding a false Western identity?) or the numerous visual references to newspapers (the media generated myth of Mahatma Gandhi?) was unclear. Nor, contra ENO’s press information statement, is it immediately apparent just how the pharaoh Akhenaten (or Akhnaten), unlike Gandhi and Einstein, “changed the world”. Akhenaten’s attempt to introduce a monotheistic religion based on the worship of the sun god Aten ultimately failed.
These quibbles aside, this production and performance are a triumph for all concerned. And although it is difficult to assess the quality of the singing, given the idiosyncrasies of Glass’s music, tenor Toby Spence (Gandhi) and baritone Nicholas Folwell (Mr Kallenbach) stood out.
DR LESLIE JONES is Editor of QR