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Philip Glass Satyagraha
[Libretto by Constance De Jong, adapted from the “Bhagavada Gita”; sung in Sanskrit]

M.K. Ghandi – Alan Oke
Miss Schlesen – Elena Xanthoudakis
Mrs Naidoo – Janis Kelly
Kasturbai – Anne Marie Gibbons
Mr Kallenbach – Ashley Holland
Parsi Rustomji / Lord Krishna – James Gower
Mrs Alexander – Jean Rigby
Prince Arjuna – Robert Poulton

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Johannes Debus
Phelim McDermott – Director
Julian Crouch – Associate director / Set designer
Kevin Pollard – Costume designer
Paule Constable – Lighting designer
Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer – Video design

The Coliseum, London, 7 April 2007

ENO has sought to revive the waning Philip Glass cult, and it was time to give him another try, but there were many empty seats for this 1980's opera revival at the Coliseum. We found the "Improbable" team's production (www.improbable.co.uk) stunning, but the three hours of music, based as it is on Glass's "repetitive techniques", numbing.

The surtitle controversy has been fought and won; ENO now gives us Opera in English with surtitles. For Satyagraha, though, it was paradoxically opera sung in Sanskrit - without surtitles...

But they found a third way, 'medititles' (see illustration) - huge lettering projected from time to time onto the simulated corrogated iron back wall. Easy to read whatever your eyesight, and from the stalls no need to crane your neck to see above the stage! Great.


The staging and lighting were hugely inventive, with "aerialists" and a "skills ensemble" who did wonders with newsprint (the Indian Opinion of 1906 was a pervasive theme) and manipulating thrice-live size papier mâché puppets; amazing!






But the last act (during which some people departed) became slower and less and less eventful, regrettably making for one of the most tedious hours I have ever endured in the opera house... It comprised mostly a monologue for Gandhi, with Martin Luther King - the subsequent icon for passive resistance - seen miming his famous speech on a rostrum back stage (there had previously been cameo appearances by Tolstoy and Tagore). Thoughts strayed to when or whether either of them might be shot...

In an earlier Act, the cast divested themselves of clothes, which were put onto coat hangers which had descended effectively from the flies; three of them ascended however without anything on them, perhaps signifying the troubled ENO's further threatened staff reductions?

The singing was variable, unhelped by the deliberate absence of vocal characterisation. Best was the chorus, helped by effective costuming. Alan Oke took the brunt as Gandhi, and did so efficiently; it was sometimes hard to sort out who was who amongst the other named singers (an interminable soprano/mezzo duet at the beginning of Act 3 was marred by the latter's heavy vibrato) and the whole thing was testingly slow, even the occasional faster music being based on a slow underlying pulse.

Peter Grahame Woolf

There are some positive reviews, and I point you to Classical Source for one of them. For a broader perspecitve, the Financial Times!
The run continues to 1 May.

Images ENO/Patricia Ashmore