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.