Becoming Gandhi – Satyagraha at ENO

An aura of concentrated stillness descends over the London Coliseum as the opening measures of Philip Glass’s opera Satygraha are sung, simply and eloquently, by tenor Toby Spence. He is M.K. Gandhi: dressed in a formal dark suit, he is a young lawyer in South Africa, not yet the stoic nonviolent activist, the “Mahatma”, in his distinctive white dhoti.

Satyagraha, a sanskrit word meaning “truth force”, is a meditation on the early life of Gandhi when, as a lawyer working in South Africa in the early years of the twentieth century, he encountered racial discrimination: his response was the development of non-violent protest as a political tool. This central narrative feels appropriately topical in our troubled times of suspicion towards migrants, refugees, people of colour and those of different faiths, and this gives Satyagraha a relevance and immediacy which makes it all the more compelling.The attendant presences through the three acts of Tolstoy, the Bengali poet Tagore, and Martin Luther King respectively remind us of the wider influences and connections of Gandhi’s story and his philosophy.

Phelim McDermott’s gorgeously theatrical production, first staged at ENO in 2007 (when it broke box office records for modern opera), is a feast for eyes and ears, and the combination of a visually arresting set, enhanced by puppetry, film and projections, and Glass’s haunting, mesmeric soundscape make this quite unlike traditional operas. In fact, someone on Twitter compared it to Parsifal and while I have never seen Parsifal, I can appreciate the comparison: the length, the scale, the absorbing narrative and the sense of a whole art work – the Wagnerian Gesamtwerk.  And in mixing the sacred text of the Bhagavad Gita with the real life incidents of  Gandhi’s formative experiences in South Africa, the opera also has the feel of a grand oratorio.

If you saw ENO’s Akhnaten, also directed by Phelim McDermott, many of the tropes will be familiar: the slow motion and long ritualistic set-pieces, the visual and poetic allegories. These all inform and enhance the narrative – and you need it because the libretto is in Sanskrit and there are no surtitles! (But thankfully comprehensive programme notes, which made for interesting reading on my homeward train journey afterwards.)

The ENO chorus is on superb form, as always, and the orchestra was masterfully and sensitively directed by Karen Kamensek, a Glass specialist, who brought colour and vibrancy to Glass’s spooling repetitions and piquant harmonic shifts.

The entire experience was profound, moving and very beautiful.

Performances continue at ENO until February 27 — details here.