Review: Satyagraha by Philip Glass
English National Opera, in a co-pruduction with Improbable, February 25th 2010, review and pencil drawing by Geoff Winston)
LondonJazz writer Geoff Winston enjoys a very different evening.
Satyagraha at English National Opera is a revival of the hugely successful 2007 first run of Philip Glass’s three act, three hour opera is based on Gandhi’s time in South Africa, where he campaigned for its oppressed Indian minority. The libretto, all in Sanskrit (a special departure from ENO’s normal practice of staging in English) is based on the Bhagavad-Gita.
Never straying from the semi-circular arena with the appearance of worn corrugated metal sheets as the backdrop, a flowing repertoire of three-dimensional illusions and feats is performed by the cast supplemented by the stilt-walkers, puppeteers and acrobats of Improbable’s Skills Ensemble.
Reminiscent of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, who utilised boats, cranes and diggers, fireworks and flamethrowers in their outdoor performances in the 80s, Improbable’s Phelim McDermott (director) and Julian Crouch (designer) have conjured visual gymnastics with the simplest of materials – newspapers (a link to Gandhi’s ‘Indian Opinion’) – which combine to become momentarily hand-held screens for projected words, then disappear into oblivion – transparent packing tape, unwound across the length of the stage, by the cast, slowly traversing from one side to the other to build up a complex of web-like parallel strands, only to be crumpled in a few seconds.
Basketry and debris are brought together to form fantasy creatures at superhuman size, clashing, manipulated by scurrying puppeteers, then disassembled in seconds, returned to heaps of debris, as though they’d never appeared – you wonder whether you’d been imagining it all along; gigantic fairground heads in a busy, disturbing throng; all contributing to the dreamlike, if disturbing, atmosphere. Memorable images, such as the photograph of the ship projected on to the full height of the background wall, slowly moving, sepia-toned, from left to right and dissolving, as do the projected words, translations of the Sanskrit libretto, which punctuate the performance.
The back wall is punctuated by apertures which close up after revealing their contents – the mute figures of Tolstoy, Tagore and Martin Luther King, or strange lobster-like puppets.
The chorus was formidable – strength in unity; the soloists, singly moving and carefully balanced in combinations throughout; Alan Oke as the protagonist and Elena Xanthouadakis, his secretary were memorable in a cast of the highest calibre, supported by an orchestra which rose to the challenge of the elemental rhythms of Glass’s composition.
If there is one production you should see this month it is the ENO’s astoundingly imaginative and technically accomplished Satyagraha.