ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
Exploring the concept of Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘truth force’ – the opera traverses Mahatma Gandhi’s development of non-violent protests as a political tool.
Written entirely in Sanskrit, the work considers the power of group activism and the change that can come about through the actions of communities. The story moves back and forth through Gandhi’s life, with the flow of time, words and music creating a hypnotic experience.
Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Vocal text by Constance DeJong (adapted from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’)
Book by Philip Glass and Constance DeJong
Director, Phelim McDermott
Revival Director, Peter Relton
Conductor, Carolyn Kuan
Satyagraha first premiered in September 1980.
This staging of Satyagraha first premiered at the ENO in 2007.
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ENO Satyagraha – A return to the Coliseum filled with hope – Carol Jones
After 19 months, a drive-in opera and a breathing programme for long Covid sufferers, English National Opera finally returned to the London Coliseum. In a remarkably understated entry, the curtain rose to silence to present Sean Panikkar as Gandhi on a darkly lit stage surrounded by a corrugated wall that forms Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha. The dim lighting isn’t lost on an audience that is itself only just returning to the light of the theatre.
Glass’s Satyagraha is a bold choice to mark ENO’s return. The second of Glass’s portrait trilogy, Satyagraha is a meditation that examines Gandhi’s evolution of his philosophy of non-violence during his time in South Africa. The opera doesn’t follow a traditional plot and even if it did, you might not understand it given that it’s sung in Sanskrit with no subtitles. An audience member who sat next to me compared it to religious experience: you need to have faith.
McDermott’s production is notable for its use of puppetry and stagecraft. Gargantuan puppets, video projections, flying cast members and the endless different uses of newspaper guide the audience and help illustrate Gandhi’s transformation. Whilst their meaning may not always be clear, especially some of the larger, more malevolent puppets, they never draw your attention too far away from the action, except for some newspaper noise.
If you’ve heard Glass’s music, whether it’s his concert music or film scores such as ‘The Hours’, you’ll instantly recognise the iconic sequences that characterise his music. Here, Glass has the opportunity to expand and explore each sequences musical potential. Each new idea is crafted to organically emerge from the last so that you can’t tell one sequence from another. Conductor Carolyn Kuan skilfully brings out each subtle change whilst keeping hold of the imposing cast and orchestra. Panikkar mirrors Kuan’s calm with his detailed performance, with every movement weighted with meaning. But it’s the chorus that are the real stars of this production. This is an opera that requires technical skill and stamina. The long, extended passages of repetition along with high-intensity singing demonstrate the full power and technical ability of this chorus.
Satyagraha is an opera that requires you to be present. It’s filled with restraint so that you have to pay attention to each step, each note, each move of newspaper to fully experience the emotional pull of this opera. Starting the season with Satyagraha is a brave move, but it pays off in dividends. Its message of hope makes it an ideal choice to signal ENO’s return to the Coliseum and fill audiences with optimism after a long period of silence.
Satyagraha is a meditation on movement. Philip Glass’s second in the Portrait Trilogy focuses on the life of Gandhi, the movement and the philosophy he represents. This 2007 revival is anything but lack lustre: it is punchy, full of colour, texture and motion.
The music creates a sort of dynamic equilibrium: continuously moving but not in a linear direction, instead swirling in a more elemental fashion like winds, oceans, fire. Each voice, now one, now three, twenty, back to one feels as natural as breathing and create at times a richness, at times a purity that Glass is renowned for.
There are several tableaus that stick in the mind from the production, carefully placed to lodge the stories they represent in the mind (for example the burning of the identity cards at the close of the second act). The staging makes a lot of sense: the familiar images created act as touch stones that the viewer can grab hold of in the ebb and flow of the music and unfamiliar language (especially at the ENO). It was a joy not having to look up at the surtitles, and the projected text did a good job of conveying the meaning of the Sanskrit passages.
The ensemble provided some wonderful moments. The beginning of the second act sees a row of European settler ‘gentlemen’, or Wacky Races like caricatures, Ha-ha-ha-ing for about thirty minutes at Gandhi (lucky them; I hear laughing therapy is very good for you). Carolyn Kuan did a good job of holding each part to the strict rhythms of the music, especially in sections where the singers and instrumentalists were in unison. Sean Panikkar was a vision of Gandhi, channelling a vulnerable, insecure side of the great man which was touching to watch. I also particularly enjoyed the trio of Panikkar, Verity Wingate and Felicity Buckland.
Indeed, the movement technicians and their props were busy throughout – bringing out elaborate newsprint puppets: we had the Europeans, Hindu gods, many different animals and mythical beasts. We had people hoisted up into the air, fields were planted, newspapers spread out and then promptly scrunched up and a particularly nice use of tape in the third act creating partitions across the stage that trembled like the surface of water and were then robbed of their movement when the riot police arrived.
However, for all the talk of Glass’s meditative music, I really did find the elaborate staging a distraction. There was a lot happening on stage at all times, and for me some more moments of repose would have helped focus the mind on the repetitive structures in the music. I will say that I am a visual person, so it is conceivable that the fault is mine. The overall effect was undeniably enjoyable and has certainly prompted me to read up on Gandhi which can only be a good thing.
Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha” depicts scenes from the Boer War and Gandhi’s pacifist protests with the South Africans against the Transvaal government. Korean filmmaker Hwang Dong-Hugh’s “Squidgame” comments closely on a similar conflict between the Korean proletariat and bourgeoise. “Squidgame” has now become Netflix’s most ever watched series. It is extremely on topic of the ENO to open their 2021/2022 season examining issues of inequality, with a revival of Phelim McDermott’s “Satyagraha”.
Satyagraha is unique compared to other ENO Productions as the text stems from the holy Hindu scripture Bhagarad Gita, a narrative of a battle between Prince Arjuna and God Krishna. Glass does the scripture complete justice, using minimalistic operatic writing. Satyagraha imitates the text’s repetitive figures through repetitive arpeggio motifs of gradation. Like the Bhagarad Gita scripture, Philip Glass skilfully transfixes his audience into a meditative state, before the ear can adjust to any harmonic structure, Glass modulates slightly. This technique gives each Act constant static movement despite their slow natures.
Conductor Carolyn Kuan making her debut successfully dominated the pit, each accentuation and timbre was executed with precision. Sean Panikhuv’s ability to cut through thick, sustained textures with pure climbing scales was sublime, it was impossible to not become sedated under these melodies as they washed over the Coliseum. To fully experience Philip Glass’ work, you must completely surrender yourself to what you are presented with on stage and allow yourself to embark on the meditative journey of Satyagraha, as Gandhi’s disciples did in pacifist protest. Having fully submerged yourself, it is impossible to leave the Coliseum without Glass’ enraptured Sanskrit melodies still vibrating through the skull.
Phelim McDermott’s staging met the high standard set by Carolyn Kuan’s orchestration. Onstage, McDermott gave life to inanimate objects, such as newspapers from Gandhi’s protest propaganda: “The Indian Opinion”. These puppets were supported from each limb, making it possible for each to follow Laban-type movements making them each sentient being. McDermott depicted scenes of violence towards Gandhi, were presented through unique takes on Operatic proxemics through puppetry. It was a breath-taking image, as each menacing puppet symbolizing the Transvaal government could idly walk over the stage and the lower classes.
Satyagraha – Patrick Shorrock
Ghandi is alleged to have been asked what he thought of Western Civilisation and to have replied that it would be a rather good idea. I’m not sure what he would make of his depiction in Philip Glass’s Satygraha, which marks ENO’s very welcome return to operatic life after lockdown. Glass’s bland but mesmirising music – with its lengthy repetitions and abrupt halts – can feel like the equivalent of a scented candle or a luxury yoga retreat rather than a challenge to “western civilisation”. Ghandi’s concept of satyagraha – a form of resistance to oppressive power (in this case, Jan Smut’s South African Government) – where you bring your opponent to the truth through patience and compassion, doesn’t really convince, as shown here. But what does come across is the effectiveness of committed group action in the form of the magnificent ENO chorus and Skills ensemble.
And is it really an opera or a sequence of spectacular tableaux? And does this really matter when the boundary between opera and not-opera is actually pretty fuzzy? The Fairy Queen, Donnerstag, The Mask of Orpheus, and a lot of Rameau are, like Satyagraha, more akin to masques; while other works such as Handel’s oratorios have enough drama to be staged even though not conceived with the opera house in mind. Satygraha certainly belongs at the less dramatic end of the operatic spectrum: static, with a Sanskrit text designed to be obscure to western audiences. From time to time the text was flashed up in a clunky, platitudinous translation that did the Bhagavada Gita no favours.
But perhaps the obscurity is sort of the point – weaning us off the focus on meaning and the individual, requiring us to abandon interpretative control and let the hypnotic music wash over us.
The virtuoso staging is certainly spectacular, in Phelim Mcdermott’s production and Julian Crouch’s astonishing adaptable sets, featuring marvellous giant puppets including a wicker emu, a crocodile, Ganesh the Hindu elephant god, and assorted capitalist villains who looked as though they had come to life after being commemorated on Mount Rushmore. Newspaper made for a fascinating and persistent visual motif. But the production’s gloriously theatrical decoration did precious little to make the piece intelligible – not something that I think its creators considered a priority – leaving it all too vulnerable to Dr Johnson’s criticism of opera as an exotic and irrational entertainment.
Sean Panikkar as Ghandi had great presence providing sweet tone through a long vocally gruelling part, and Carolyn Kuan kept the shifting patterns of the score on track without losing momentum
There is not much here to give Priti Patel nightmares or Extinction Rebellion food for thought, but it was lovely to go with the undemanding musical flow. There is a reason why people buy scented candles and go on expensive yoga retreats. On these limited terms, Satyagraha succeeds very well. But I was left puzzled why Smut’s statue is in Parliament Square.
Would you attend a fashion show for the music, or perhaps a concert for the clothes? There is certainly nothing wrong in doing so, but I do wonder if that is the point?
I’m slightly on the fence about what it means if your lasting impression of a performance is the scenery, not the music, nor the singing, nor the drama. It feels slightly counterintuitive. I am not insinuating that the staging is of less importance than the other show components, we are all well-versed in the importance of a triple threat and well-rounded production, but I believe there needs to be more balance. And, whilst this may be a bland expectation… should an opera not predominantly offer a platform to musical and vocal talent?
Satyagraha, an opera in three acts, is an adaptation of the Bhagavad Gita, sung in the ancient Hindu language of Sanskrit. Each act is dedicated to an icon of non-violence and reformation: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King, and loosely, without too much linearity, depicts the life of Gandhi (Sean Panikkar). As an icon of non-violence himself, perhaps even the icon of non-violence, you would expect Satyagraha to be a sensational and exhilarating tribute. Whilst I have confidence that there is an opera to be written that will do just that, I’m not entirely convinced that Satyagraha is it.
The creative vision of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch is, in all its operatic splendour, sensationally extravagant and exceptionally realised. I could probably write a short novel on the range of props and puppets on display, but not all of them would be accompanied by a resolute description of their purpose or necessity. That being said, the scale of the puppetry, manned by the cast (sometimes on stilts, sometimes in flight), is certainly a sight to behold. Beyond this, the most consistent symbolism used has to be the newspaper: scrunched up, torn, laid down in pathways, a sign of pomposity, of status, of reformation – the newspaper is a dexterous, contextually sensitive and highly effective prop.
As many scenes are interrupted by sky-high lolloping trolls, it is often hard to know where to direct your attention. Accompanied by Philip Glass’ hypnotic melody, Satyagraha creates a meditative feel for the ear and a frenzied feel for the eye. This may be because I sat in resistance to Glass’ hypnotism, but your attention is drawn in too many directions to truly submit to what I believe is the intended point of Glass’ music – to entrance. In a direct challenge to Glass sceptics, this adaptation exists as the convincing and unrelenting antithesis to boredom.
And just like that, I have come to the end of an opera review without so much more than a couple of sentences about the singing and the score. Does Satyagraha even constitute the ‘opera’ title? I’ll leave that to your own discretion.
The revival of director Phelim McDermott’s production of Satyagraha is a musical odyssey wrapped up in a visual masterpiece, a stunning, if unconventional, piece with which to kick off this season at the English National Opera. Sung entirely in Sanskrit and adapted from the Bhagavad Gita by Constance DeJong, composer Philip Glass’s Satyagraha goes against the grain of most operas staged at the London Coliseum, which are traditionally performed in English. However, the choice to revive this production renews the ENO’s commitment to create diverse, captivating and cutting-edge performances.
Satyagraha is the second in Glass’s trilogy of ‘portrait’ operas, focusing on the years Mahatma Gandhi spent in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. It does more than simply tell the story of these years, as Glass places Gandhi’s life within a tradition of peace and protest by naming each of the three acts after his influences and contemporaries: Tolstoy, Tagore, and Martin Luther King. The opera has a pulsating and crescendoing score, with defiance in the face of injustice driving the narrative; the ENO chorus and orchestra, led by the conductor Carolyn Kuan, carry it beautifully. Although Satyagraha is not as poignant as Einstein On The Beach, or as gripping as Akhenaten, it is a profound opera that shows, in the words of the ENO’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon, ‘that good can change the world’.
Originally performed in 2007, this is the fourth revival of McDermott’s production at the ENO. McDermott, in collaboration with Improbable theatre company designer Julian Crouch, fills the stage with colossal puppetry, displaying animalistic metaphors for resistance, more recognisable symbols of Hinduism and huge golem-like figures of corruption. The deployment of the puppets was at times a little laboured, especially in the second act, but Glass’s score lends itself to the gargantuan movements needed to create such vast spectacles on stage.
The power of the overall tableau was only bested by the individual performances. Having seen Sean Panikkar’s ENO debut in 2020 as Don Jose in Carmen, I was intrigued by what he could bring to the role of Gandhi. In this production, I was blown away by his singing and his incredible versatility as a performer, which contains a warm and subtle solemnity. Verity Wingate and Gabriella Cassidy, who played Miss Schlesen and Mrs Naidoo respectively, also gave incredibly touching performances. There was a compelling sense of harmony between the chorus, the characters, the orchestra and puppetry, an impressive feat within such an intricate opera.
Satyagraha was perhaps an unusual choice for ENO’s grand reopening after the pandemic, as its minimalism and Sanskrit libretto risks being inaccessible. However, with its visually spectacular narrative and indisputably masterful score, it is a wonderful production which reflects on the virtues of resistance, truth and faith.
Satyagraha is, in many ways, an alienating choice to open this season at the ENO. It’s one of very few productions not in English (try sacred Sanksrit) and in place of plot it drifts between abstracted scenes and images. Like all of Philip Glass’ Portrait Trilogy, it presents less story, and more meditation – full appreciation of which relies (I’m told) on a wealth of historical backstory: from the Black Act of 1919, to Indian polymath, Rabindranath Tagore.
But it doesn’t seem necessarily an elitist choice for the Coliseum’s return to post-pandemic life. It’s been almost twenty months since the curtain last went up and artistic director Annilese Miskimmon is quick to point out that the bare-bones of Satyagraha might have some relevance to lock-down life: a story of ordinary people coming together to achieve something for the greater good. It makes the choice seem obvious but – like director Phelim McDermott’s most striking visual metaphors – nothing is lost for lack of subtlety.
Teams of people work together to manipulate newspaper into rivers, clothes, people – just as Indian Opinion unified and mobilised resistance to British rule; the progression of Gandhi’s followers is charted by removing and destroying western suits and dresses; Martin Luther King jr., finally, stands on a pedestal above Gandhi – almost literally the shoulders of giants.
There’s very little to fault in this performance: evidently a tightly run ship on its seventh international outing. There are a few brief moments of vocal troubleshooting: Sean Panikkar’s Gandhi finds himself overpowered at one or two points by imperious bass and baritone from William Thomas and Ross Ramgobin respectively. But this doesn’t feel like a shortcoming – especially to those who remember Pannikar’s strident José on the same stage last year – because otherwise his leading performance is absolute.
An example: Glass’ cycling motifs don’t allow much flexibility for rhythmic interpretation, but in his few unaccompanied syllables before the orchestra starts up, Pannikar leans into just enough rubato to convey the effort of one man setting such tectonic wheels in motion. Otherwise it’s the aural equivalent of beginning in media res, as if this music has always been sounding, and we’re momentarily tuned to the right frequency.
Throughout, Pannikar combines by turns a compelling performance of power and fatigue, in both his voice and the way he carries his body through a maelstrom of material theatre. Such a masterful showing surely deserves the benefit of the doubt; perhaps we’re meant to lose Gandhi’s voice underneath the swell of his inspirations and disciples, like the orchestra thundering over straining choristers in a Mahler symphony.
Ultimately this is what Satyagraha is about: interfacing between individuals and the society roiling around them. It’s really what any story is about, from Tolstoy’s novels to Glass’ popular writing for movies like Candyman. What makes this production uniquely powerful is its ability to pull a thread of inspiration through the noise of history.
Opera by Philip Glass. Directed by Phelim McDermott
A review by Maxine Morse, ENO Response
Satyagraha… part cirque du soleil, part mystical experience, part manifesto for radicals.
A young Gandhi, a suited, suitcased lawyer, ejected from a first-class South African rail carriage sits in a heap besides the road. He depicts the struggles of the immigrant, subjected to small acts of everyday prejudice, shoved, pelted with debris and always being treated as “less than”. They are the shoe shining underclasses who pander to the boorish Afrikaners; tattered, dusty, rusty and invisibly blending into the corrugated iron back drop of the set.
Gandhi turns to the holy scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, not to bear his lot, but to plan his movement. When you wage a war with weapons you don’t battle a faceless enemy, you kill your family, friends and neighbours who hold differing viewpoints. The author, Leo Tolstoy provides Gandhi with a formula for winning a revolution in “Letter to a Hindu”, you fight back with love.
Satyagraha means “insistence on truth”. It encompasses methods of passive resistance; the 240 mile Dandi Salt March in 1930 to protest the British imposed salt tax is enacted by peasants, farmers and urban labourers who swish the water with baskets to harvest salt. Gandhi galvanises his supporters with his newsletter, The Indian Opinion which rains on the stage like confetti. The crowds, with trepidation, burn their discriminatory Asian registration certificates in a fire pit.
The libretto (Phelim McDermott and Constance De Jong) is sung in Sanskrit without surtitles, rendering the performance more mime than opera with the Bhagavad-Gita acting as a philosophical and vocal backdrop. Gandhi’s (Sean Panikkar) vocals soar and dip in both hope and spiritual lament.
I had so many questions…some of them more pragmatic than artistic.
How do you train an English performing chorus to sing in Sanskrit? How does Carolyn Kuan, in her debut performance, manage to conduct the obscurest of vocals?
And the questions kept on coming…
I implore you read a plot synopsis. Otherwise, you will spend the first interval queuing for a programme and playing speed-reading-catch-up instead of drinking a gin and tonic in the bar.
Maybe you struggle with non-linear plots and meditative eastern chanting is “all Greek to you”. Maybe you are a person like me! So why venture out on a cold, dark, autumnal night?
Go…this opera is a rare act of beauty, a spiritual tour de force with Glass’s signature minimalist music counterbalanced by a visually spectacular set filled to the rafters with aerialists, grotesque puppets and props crafted out of waste and humble materials.
Go…to be moved by the sheer pathos of a thin, wiry, magnetic man who faced injustice head on to start a movement which changed the world.
Satyagraha, Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation – Naomi James-Mitchell
Satyagraha being a divisive Philip Glass opera which though was visually stunning was not musically enjoyable. The minimalist nature of Glass’ composition left a lot to be desired. Each new phrase of repetition is initially stimulating but it feels like it drags on too long. There is very little variation in the tempo so it makes the opera feel stagnant and loose impact as the constant ostinatos send the audience into a trance and focus on the story is easily lost.
Julian Crouch’s set design was effective but I found it hard to recognise it as South Africa though the windows in the corrugated metal “enclosure” were great at bringing interest to the scene being acted below. The magnificent puppetry and additions that hung from the ceiling, the real fire and moving prop pieces were stunning but distracted from the story; even in the case of some puppets, confused the story further. I also think the projections of words did not match the aesthetic of the show and wonder if there was a better way of putting that information across.
In the case of the costumes, designer Kevin Pollard was effective in creating a cohesive look and uniting the costume to the culture then in reflecting Gandhi at each point of his journey. Though the traditional Indian dress did make it confusing when later finding out the setting is South Africa and the more fitted bodices may not have been historically accurate.
Sean Panikkar was a striking Gandhi and a wonderful performer who very easily commanded the attention of the audience. The Conductor Carolyn Kuan and all members of the orchestra were spectacular.
Though, my enjoyment of this opera drastically decreased due to the glorification of Gandhi and the white washing of this opera. Being the opera about a South Asian man in Sanskrit seems like cultural appreciation as (Mahatma) Gandhi grew up in the Hindu faith where Sanskrit is the sacred language of their texts and his commonly known title is derived from the Sanskrit for “great soul”. Though Gandhi was racist in believing in the Aryan brotherhood and spreading it in his philosophy in tandem with Philip Glass being a white man erased all of Gandhi’s flaws in this opera making the whole concept of this opera seem like cultural appropriation.
In the ENO company the question of racism also persists. In a majority white cast wearing traditionally Indian dress. An all-white production team excluding the conductor tells a story of cultural oversight; weather intentional or unintentional of BAME opera performers not being utilised more in operas which need non-white performers to be carried out.
Satyagraha ENO Response – Alex Cohen
Why did the ENO’s new artistic director Annilese Miskimmon choose Satyagraha to reopen the ENO after 20 months of pandemic induced closure? Surely the obvious post-pandemic move would be to draw the audiences back in with a classic crowd pleaser? Not a long, difficult to digest opera written in Sanskrit and lacking a clear narrative. Satyagraha is certainly not a crowd pleaser. Yet the production is a testament to art’s ability to make us question fundamental concepts. In an age where we are all too acclimatised to easily digestible art thanks to Netflix and Tiktok, the ENO are showing us what art, and opera, is truly capable of.
Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s iconic Minimalist opera is a celebration of the power of stories. Drawing on Ancient Hindu scripture and Indian history alike, it synthesises gorgeous spectacle, sublime artistry, and a mosaic of emotions and ideas. But this spectacle does not derive from the production’s grandiose elements. Resplendent puppets clamber over the stage dwarfing the performers beneath. There is fire. There is flying. But the sense of awe induced by these elements quickly dissipates because these elements are fundamentally superfluous, adding little to the experience other than pageantry. Whilst technically impressive, the puppetry it is nothing extraordinary post the National Theatre’s highly lucrative War Horse. But then again, Glass’s opera is called Minimalist for a reason; we need something to watch as we hear the same musical motifs repeated again and again and again.
Instead the genuine spectacle derives from the creative team’s ability to construct complex symbols and striking images out of mundane objects: a bundle of newspapers became a swirling sun with Gandhi stood defiantly in front. The Platonic parallels were clear, the power of the written word to mobilise revolution, liberate the oppressed from colonial rule and bring the light of knowledge to the darkness of ignorance. This is where the brilliance of the production lies. The cast and orchestra collectively play with light, objects, and sound to create images whose meaning transcends their immediate appearance.
Philip Glass is not for the faint of heart. Younger generations who crave instant gratification from their engagement in pseudo-art may lack the stamina to engage in Satyagraha. The linguistic barrier may even present a challenge to even the most experienced opera goers. But in placing Satyagraha at the helm of their new season the ENO are telling us that we need art is not instantly gratifying, that is not mere sensuousness. We need art that demands to be untangled by audiences and creatives, that demands us to explore, that demands us to play. Glass’s opera, with its inherent complexities, is a perfect place to start.
Whilst it might not be conventionally entertaining like other offerings in the ENO’s new season (leave HMS Pinafore to put bums on seats and smiles on faces) Satyagraha demands us to sit up, listen, and think.
Satyagraha – Alex Grant-Said
A largely silent protagonist, a libretto sung entirely in Sanskrit and not much in the way of plot. Remarkably Philip Glass’s 1980 Satyagraha happens to be one of the English National Opera’s great commercial successes. The company rechristens their London home after an 18 month hiatus with a fourth revival of Phelim McDermott’s 2007 staging in what could have been enticingly rich fare for a culturally underfed audience. Instead the three and a half hour meditation on Gandhi’s early life proves especially inaccessible post-pandemic; chiefly because of its preoccupation with formalism over humanity.
Glass examines social justice as a form of spiritual combat, Krishna linking to Gandhi linking to Martin Luther King but with his protagonist much more a passive messianic icon than a catalyst for change, the historical episodes that play out – based on Gandhi’s life in South Africa and the development of his nonviolent protest movement – become a mythologising exercise with little emotional weight.
McDermott does well to accentuate the opera’s esoteric intent, stripping its movement right down to a ritualistic march. Large projected quotes from the Bhagavad Gita fade in and out but the incomprehensible singing (unless you’re a native speaker, ENO?) combined with the snail pace often mean these fragments of surtitles are the only elliptical means with which to translate any action.
Julian Crouch’s set design effectively suggests impoverished India or South African city with only a towering semi-circular wall of corrugate in ever-present orange haze. In this subconscious space, monsters, gods and cities are cleverly conjured out of papier-mâché, manipulated by well-practised puppeteers but even a crowd of grotesque giants looming over Gandhi isn’t enough to enliven Glass’s incessant, monastic arpeggios. Conductor Carolyn Kuam strains against the score’s austerity at times with sudden spikes of energy, though overall she leads a lively, diligent orchestra.
Thank god for Sean Panikkar in the lead role. When the tenor is finally able to open his lungs at the end of Act II after a long spell of silence, his vocals temporarily lift the tone with thrilling warmth and a lightness of touch. Backed by a hardworking ENO chorus who must be applauded for their stamina and richness, his Protest scene and finale are the highlights of the night. Other notable performances come from Gabriella Cassidy’s vigorous Miss Schlesen and Musa Ngqungwana’s imposing Lord Krishna, who both shine despite brief stage time.
Overall though, Satyagraha might have been better placed later in the season. More self-consciously cerebral than heartfelt, it seems a strange choice to welcome a fragile London back to the opera.