Review: OPERA Satyagraha Kingswood School, Bath

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The Independent Culture
A minimalist opera sung completely in Sanskrit isn't an obvious choice for anyone's school play, even in the relatively lofty context of further and higher education. Giggling, one could have guessed in retrospect, was always going to be a problem. And it was. But otherwise this collaboration between Bath College of Higher Education and Frome Community College was quite outstandingly bold and beautiful, and a fitting tribute to its composer, Philip Glass, who had his 60th birthday on 31 January.

First staged in 1980, five years after Einstein on the Beach and three years before Akhnaten (the only one of the trilogy so far seen in Britain), Satyagraha is among Glass's most satisfying works. While his more recent compositions (the latest, the Heroes symphony - after Bowie and Eno - is just about to be released on CD by Point Music) have, for many critics, inflated his customary small but beautiful aesthetic into the heavy, orchestral equivalent of a lead balloon, the music of Satyagraha is all light and air, while the theme is as serious as a theme can be. Set in South Africa between 1893 and 1913, Satyagraha charts the development of Mahatma Gandhi's theory of non-violent opposition - the "truth force" of the opera's title. Each scene deals with a political event, from the "Birth of an Idea", when Gandhi is ejected from a railway carriage reserved for whites only, to the "Newcastle March", when Hindu women march in order to get Indian workers in the mines to strike.

Or rather, that might be the bare bones of the scenario, but it's hardly the nub of the text, for Glass's libretto, derived from the Bhagavad-Gita, provides a kind of continuous commentary on the action while remaining almost celestially distanced from it. The director of last weekend's British premiere staging, Mike Walker of Frome College, admitted in a programme- note that he had little to go on by way of precedent, and he settled for striking tableaux in which the acting chorus (from Frome) created a dramatic context for the music (from Bath). If the action was the least convincing of the two, it commanded the stage all the same, and produced a number of memorable images. Walker also invented the role of an acting Gandhi (Ruth Evans) to complement the singing Gandhi, a device that helped to counteract the rather static conception of the piece.

As the singing Gandhi, David Vickers sounded like an angel, his pure, unforced tenor voice capturing quite marvellously the difficult idiom. Musical director Roger Heaton (an eminent clarinettist and conductor, as well as a visiting lecturer at Bath, where his own group could be heard playing Gavin Bryars' Three Elegies at the Michael Tippett Centre last night) coaxed remarkable performances from the orchestral players, with the repeated cycles of the woodwind parts timed to perfection. In the great, life-affirming "Newcastle March" finale, the cumulative effect of the whole production was deeply moving. A few giggles from the Frome youngsters could therefore be forgiven, especially as the continual pom- pom-pom-pom-pom of the vocal chorus was always likely to raise a laugh from somewhere.

Act 2 of `Satyagraha' will form part of a week-long `Living Composer' festival of Philip Glass's work at the South Bank Centre in London, opening with the UK premiere of the `Heroes' symphony on 15 May