Review: ‘Satyagraha’ at English National Opera

Philip Glass’s mesmerising opera chronicles Gandhi’s early years in South Africa

Nicholas Folwell, Anna-Clare-Monk, Charlotte Beament, Toby Spence, Clive Bayley and Stephanie Marshall in ‘Satyagraha’ at the ENO. Photograph: Donald Cooper

Philip Glass’s Satyagraha returns for its third revival in 11 years at English National Opera’s Coliseum theatre – a testimony to its place among a select band of late-20th-century operas that have muscled their way into the standard repertoire. This operatic meditation on Gandhi’s early awakening in South Africa offers little challenge to the modern ear with its accessible, almost chill-out-zone feel, the singers chanting in Sanskrit over its repeated arpeggio riffs. Its theme of non-violent resistance (the title is taken from the word Gandhi coined to describe it – “truth force”, apparently) is timely in an era of mass demonstration, its self-improving mantras welcome to the mindful generation.

This production has become a justly famous addition to the ENO’s stable and is now well-travelled, having recently come back from a stint at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It is the creation of Phelim McDermott and his performance-art theatre company, Improbable, and stuns visually. Giant papier-mâché figures fashioned from newspaper stalk the stage – either as grotesque caricatures or sacred animals – against a backdrop of colonial sepia-tinted corrugated iron.

Andri Björn Róbertsson in ‘Satyagraha’ at the ENO. Photograph: Donald Cooper

In terms of plot, those who read their programme notes beforehand will be well rewarded. There are historical references to Gandhi’s struggle against British anti-Indian legislation in South Africa, his setting up of a communal farm and a particularly moving scene in which he is rescued from the mob by a policeman’s wife. But these are scattered into a dream-like non-narrative, with the translations of the slogans being sung projected onto the backdrop. The opera is divided into three acts: the first two are named after those who influenced Gandhi – the Russian novelist Tolstoy and the Indian philosopher Tagore, both of whom appear in windows placed above the stage – while third is named after Martin Luther King, who in turn was influenced by Gandhi.

The opera ends with a hauntingly beautiful scene, with the future intruding on the present and American riot-geared policemen hauling Gandhi’s followers offstage while King, played by one of McDermott’s troupe, mimes giving a speech, his back turned to the audience, on a podium upstage.

Toby Spence and the chorus in ‘Satyagraha’ at the ENO. Photograph: Donald Cooper

The singing is uniformly excellent. The chorus relishes its various parts and sounds glorious. Toby Spence triumphs as Gandhi, his gentle artistry bringing a rare beauty and freshness to the role, while capturing his character’s almost saintly qualities. He is backed up by a terrific ensemble of Charlotte Beament, Anna-Clare Monk and Stephanie Marshall, as well as Nicholas Folwell and the ENO stalwart Clive Bayley. All move and sing with a trance-like beauty.

In repertory until 27 February 2018 at the English National Opera

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