Satyagraha at the London Coliseum review: A magnificent show - the perfect choice to mark ENO's return

Asia's Tech News Daily

(©Tristram Kenton)

Too many opera stagings provide no more than a picturesque backdrop, in front of which the singers fret and strut their stuff. Occasionally, though, a production comes along that is so responsive to the music and the drama that, at least while we watch, it becomes one with the work it’s staging. So it seems with Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha, first seen at English National Opera in 2007.

Neither the opera nor the staging tells a story in a straightforward way, but there is a narrative. Satyagraha (the title means “truth force” in Sanskrit) is the second opera in Glass’s “Portrait trilogy”: the other instalments focus on Einstein and the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten. Its subject – if that’s not too prescriptive a word – is Gandhi and the way his ideas on non-violent resistance developed during his years in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century.

Glass’s approach is oblique but compelling. The libretto, assembled with Constance De Jong, draws on the Bhagavad Gita and is sung in Sanskrit, with no translation provided: it shouldn’t work but it does. As ever, Glass’s music, both orchestral and vocal, is slow, undulating and insistent, not reliant on melody but always melodic. Some find the results unbearable, but if you surrender to them, the effect is, almost literally, entrancing. In the pit, conductor Carolyn Kuan maintains a firm pulse and careful sonic gradation, while the cast of nine and the mighty ENO chorus give every note full operatic weight. There isn’t a weak link, but the outstanding performance is Sean Panikkar as Gandhi, an incarnation of noble intensity.

It’s matched by the production. McDermott reduces the Coliseum’s stage by means of a semi-circular wall but it remains a huge arena. He fills it with a carnivalesque cavalcade of striking images that sometimes illustrate, sometimes echo and sometimes expand the action. Much of this is generated by a skilled ensemble deploying stilt walkers and puppeteers to embody monstrous creatures, both animal and human. There’s also some inventive video imagery from 59 Productions, and multiple tricks with newspapers, reminding us that they were a vital channel for spreading Gandhi’s ideas in South Africa, India and beyond.

Each of the opera’s three acts takes its title from a figure – Tolstoy, Tagore, Martin Luther King – who inspired or drew inspiration from Gandhi. McDermott pays homage to each in turn by giving them a cameo on a raised platform at the rear of the stage: they honour Glass’s conception without adding much to the evening. In every other way, this is a magnificent show. It makes the perfect choice to mark ENO’s return to the Coliseum after a 19-month, pandemic-induced hiatus.

London Coliseum, to Oct 28 (box.office@eno.org, eno.org)

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