Satyagraha, English National Opera, London Coliseum
Friday 26 February 2010
When Philip Glass’s ‘Satyagraha’ got its ENO staging three years ago, critical reactions were mixed. Everyone loved the aerialists and the joyfully Pythonish giant puppetry, but the fact that the libretto was sung in Sanskrit (without surtitles) was regarded as unhelpful, even if the ‘medititles’ projected on to the corrugated-cardboard back wall made partial amends. ‘Over-long’ and ‘relentlessly minimal’ were the general put-downs.
Yet here it is back again. If the critics were equivocal, the public was not: the show broke box-office records for a contemporary work at the Coliseum, and will doubtless do so again. For me, forewarned has meant forearmed, this time round: knowing that I would only have the vaguest idea of what was going on, and that - apart from Mr and Mrs Gandhi - I would neither know nor care who was who, I was free to experience the work in a completely different way. As Glass himself observes, ‘Operas aren’t history, they’re poetry. They don’t have to tell the truth.’ Take from it what you want.
From the moment when Alan Oke (Gandhi) began his ineffably sweet opening aria over a gentle cello ostinato, I was caught and held by the sheer beauty of the staging, singing, and playing in the pit. Directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch work with big simple gestures, letting their imagery morph organically: the fit with Glass’s music, which consists of slowly metamorphosing textures, is so perfect that the evening’s events seem governed by the regular pulse of the heart. The simple plot follows Mahatma Gandhi’s early years with his non-violent Satyagrahis in South Africa, and his ‘spiritual guardians’ colour each of the acts: Leo Tolstoy who inspired him, Rabindranath Tagore who counselled him, and Martin Luther King Jr, who carried on the torch of peaceful mass-resistance after he had died. Not much ‘happens’, but it’s all played out with such sacramental seriousness, and on a kaleidoscopically-changing backdrop, that we are held riveted. The ceremonial stripping of the leader down to his famous semi-nudity, the movement’s ritual baptism of fire, and the march against the first official colour bar are each inventively realised; the final scene, in which Gandhi becomes John the Baptist to King’s apotheosis on a plinth, is spellbindingly beautiful. However one rates the music per se, this show as a whole is a masterpiece. Book now.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Renee Zellweger on plastic surgery reports: 'I'm living a fulfilling life and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows'
- 2 Disney announces new female-led film Moana
- 3 Banksy not arrested: Internet duped by fake report claiming artist's identity revealed
- 4 Australian café owner sparks debate after saying 'No' to having unruly children on premises
- 5 Video: Boxer Vido Loncar brutally assaults referee following defeat
Mike Read 'apologises unreservedly' for Ukip Calypso and withdraws it from sale
Disney announces new female-led film Moana
Eight seconds of white noise is top of the Canadian iTunes chart because people love Taylor Swift that much
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - TV review: Sensitive, silly and sensational
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991 with most Brits wanting to stay in'