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Rated: E · Critique · Music · #1281452
Opera by Philip Glass performed by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Satyagraha  - M. K. Gandhi in South Africa
An opera in three acts by Philip Glass performed by the English National Opera (ENO) at the London Coliseum, Summer 2007.

Adapted from the text of the Bagavada Gita by Constance De Jong. Book by Philip Glass and Constance De Jong.

After last season’s spectacular performance of John Adams’ Nixon in China, one might be forgiven for having great expectations of ENO in this genre.

The Glass score did not disappoint, as a dazzling work of passionate and mystical intensity, with a worthy performance of it by the orchestra under Johannes Debus. 

This production of Satyagraha though, had some serious structural flaws, both in the interpretation of the work as articulated artistically, as well as in the casting and performances by the soloists.

In general, there was a poor balance of forces between the soloists and the orchestra, with the soloists completely overwhelmed at times.  While the props and set were indeed impressive, they sometimes seemed to lack any meaningful connection with the fundamental point of the work – or indeed with Gandhi himself.

The first scene of Act I, titled “The Kuru Field of Justice,” represented a great battle between good and evil, introducing the central tenet of Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha as a response to tyranny.  This was strikingly visualised by the use of monumental props doing battle. 

Alan Oke delivered an impressive performance as Gandhi. He seemed perfectly cast in the role and sang close to perfection. His performance lacked intensity at some points though, where the orchestra and colossal props tended to dominate.

James Gower, as Parsi Rustomji, was at times completely drowned-out by the orchestra and at some points looked like a mime artist.

By scene two members of the audience feeling slightly bewildered by the lack of focus or clear articulation of voice or plot got a bit of a jolt, as Elena Xanthoudakis’ (Miss Schlesen) finally managed to rise fully, but shrilly above the orchestra. 

Then Jean Rigby’s Mrs Alexander rose up all in dazzling white, pitch perfect, resplendent, rampant even, but only to be drowned out almost completely by orchestra and chorus.

It is important for a work dealing with complex philosophical and mystical themes to hold its structural integrity, balancing the forces to keep up the tension and deliver the central truths. In this production the forces that should have held things together into a cohesive and meaningful embodiment of the higher truth that Gandhi represented simply collapsed.

Besides technical imbalances, the opera participated in a number of historical myths, diluting its integrity.  For example, its creators seemed at pains to elaborate on the theme of Gandhi as a man of the people, a poor man, simple, humble, of peasant origins. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the historian Paul Johnson has demonstrated extensively elsewhere, Mr Gandhi was a member of an elite political class which emerged in the post-colonial order and went on to rule with an iron fist. He was a representative of a higher caste in Indian society who was educated, degreed, practiced law and was probably better established than many of his white compatriots in South Africa in the late nineteenth century.

Gandhi subsequently transcended the confines of race and class, and lived and stood by a philosophy and practice that offered all humanity something better. This was of more relevance as a higher truth than the crude positioning of the man as a proletarian liberation theologian, as portrayed in this opera. 

The stage backdrop consisted of an impressively vast semi-circular arrangement of corrugated iron, that functioned superbly as a screen upon which text relating to the lyrics could be projected. As the opera was entirely in ancient Sanskrit, with extensive sections from the Bhagavada Gita inserted, an effective medium for translation was sorely needed. The backdrop projection did away with the need for surtitles, and the choice of font, lighting intensity and legibility was superb. Entire passages could be beamed up while being sung or enacted by the cast.

But while the corrugated iron served one purpose well, it tended to reinforce the illusion of Gandhi as proletarian dweller. It is certainly not true that he lived in a shanty town at any stage of his life.

The newspaper theme was used highly effectively, chiefly in it’s representation of the work of the Indian Opinion newspaper. However, the point has already been made about the excessive emphasis on the ‘proletarian’ Ghandi, and the images of corrugated iron with newspaper strewn about, reminiscent of African township scenes, was stretched too far.

A peculiar anomaly presented itself in the complete and total omission of any mention of Nelson Mandela, who not only lived and practiced law in the very same city (Johannesburg) as Gandhi, but who also went on to symbolise higher truths and embody human dignity in the face of tyranny. Instead, Martin Luther King was elevated (literally) higher up than Gandhi himself, and spent an impressive greater half of the last scene on a podium in the skies elaborating and gesticulating endlessly in a representation of a grand American style political rally. Was this it? Were the producers hoping to keep the production marketable in the United States? Or were its American composer-librettist collaborators unaware of the Ghandi - Mandela connection?

Another omission is the relationship that developed between Gandhi and Jan Smuts. Smuts was a pre-apartheid prime minister who served on the Churchill WWII cabinet and almost single-handedly authored the Charter of the United Nations. He was a proponent of a philosophy of holism, whereby the interconnectedness and sacredness of all things were emphasised. But perhaps this omission was part of the tendency of this production to portray white males as universally bad, without exception.

The production conveyed an over simplified view of Ghandi’s ideas. Taken for granted is the notion that he represented universal good, his (white) enemies were all bad, corrupt and cruel. This over-simplification can be contrasted with Gandhi’s actual approach, which was to be acutely aware of the humanity of ones opponents and to recognise the possibility that a moral motivation as strong as one’s own lay behind their stance.

Lev Tolstoy received prominent coverage with little justification from the inadequate programme notes, although the connection was appropriate as Ghandi had been inspired by him, and the two of them had corresponded. 

One of the memorable highlights of this production came with the appearance of the deities at the end of Act II. Panels in the corrugated iron arena opened up to reveal the Lord Krishna and Ganesha: The Elephant-God.

The other side of the Gandhi coin is the frequent tendency to deify him. At least one member of the audience at the post-production interview with the directors stated that he felt that this was a problem. However, this criticism was not justifiable, as an excellent balance was struck, with great emphasis placed on the words and teachings of the Bhagavada Gita, the influence of Leo Tolstoy on Gandhi’s thought, and an acute awareness of those who followed Gandhi and subsequently practiced satyagraha – like Martin Luther King.  The role of other players in the story, as well as the ordinary people who Ghandi worked with was prominently highlighted.

Another unforgettable scene from this production was the New Castle March. Each person on the march carried a roll of boxing tape, which they unrolled as they proceeded across the stage. Eventually, the progress of the marchers was marked by the myriad lines of tape across the stage, which remained after they had gone. This created a striking effect, and suggested that our actions are never without consequences, and that no matter how insignificant we might think we are, we can always make a difference, and leave something behind us that is of value.

The lack of cohesiveness of the work as a whole had the effect of obscuring so many of these gems. Satyagraha lent itself exceptionally well to a more obscure, obtuse, enigmatic format, where the audience is provided with space for contemplation and reflection on themes and higher truths. But this was not carried off successfully in this production.

The lack of dynamism in the production as a whole, with the lack of ‘chemistry’ between soloists and orchestra was exacerbated by a poor choice of articles in the programme. The programme failed to explain some of the more puzzling material, but did offer explanation where one felt it was really not due. For example, one of the flyers has a rather peculiar footnote to the portrait of Martin Luther King informing the reader that “Martin Luther King is referenced in the last act as an adherent of Ghandi’s philosophies.”

It is clear from the programme notes that one of the overall goals of the production team was to put together something that would draw in a more ‘alternative’ kind of audience, which might account for some of the oddities.

But overall, this production of Satyagraha was a superficial pastiche of imagery and ideas, lacking depth or any real grasp of the underlying issues.

Brynn Binnell
Summer 2007
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