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.



The characters in English National Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten might have stepped down from an ancient Egyptian tomb painting as they glide across the stage in extreme slow-motion, arms outstretched or palms turned upwards. Restaged by Phelim McDermitt of Improbable peeformance company, the inspiration for this new production is Egyptian bas reliefs reflecting life in Akhnaten’s court, the stylised rays of the sun represented on stage by neon light sticks and the unfurling of golden ribbons, together with some gorgeous lighting effects by Bruno Poet. There are jugglers too, in this production, also inspired by ancient Egyptian art, and their activities enhance both narrative and music.

Akhnaten, his wife Nefertiti and their children, with rays of the sun disc, c1340 BC (Wikimedia Commons)

I saw the very first ENO production of Akhnaten, back in 1985. Then, the setting was spare, ultra-minimalist, with just a pyramid and a sun disc (as I recall). This new production is sumptuous, with opulent, richly-decorated costumes designed by Kevin Pollard, and fine singing from both soloists and ENO chorus.

We know that the ancient Egyptians were a ritualistic people, and this aspect is given full rein in this new production. The opera opens with a long orchestral sequence, during which hieroglyphs are projected onto a painted screen. As the stage is illuminated, the screen takes on the gauzy, grainy appearance of ancient papyrus, and through it we see seated figures with the heads of Egyptian gods – Osiris, Horus, Anubis. In the bottom segment of the set, which takes its inspiration from Egyptian wall-paintings, another ritual is taking place, as the dead Pharaoh Amenhotep III is prepared for burial. Meanwhile, his son appears, naked and vulnerable. Another ritual then ensues as Akhnaten, sung by American counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, is carefully, passively attired by his minions (played by the juggling troupe), and transformed into the new king.

No one rushes, no one runs. Even the jugglers’ balls move with grace, always perfectly synchronised. Combined with Glass’s pulsating, hypnotic score, with its luminous harmonic shifts, the overall effect is of a bas-relief or wall-painting miraculously brought to life and viewed in exquisite slow-motion. More art installation than opera, the narrative moves with an intense concentration which is both absorbing and thrilling, and this slowness, rather than creating longeurs, amplifies the epic scale. Add to this Anthony Roth Costanzo’s extraordinary other-wordly voice – made even more extraordinary when combined with Emma Carrington’s beautiful, statuesque Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone’s Queen Tye, who haunts the stage like the old Queen Mary of Tek – plus the ENO chorus’s powerful and elegaic contributions.

Scribe (Zachary James) and Queen Tye (Rebecca Bottone) (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The non-naturalistic direction never appears contrived and the slow-motion narrative builds in intensity like a solemn meditation. Even the destruction of Akhnaten’s city and his own death are told with the same glacial control, the jugglers tossing their balls into the air and simply letting them drop to the floor to illustrate the fall of Akhnaten’s empire and his belief system.

In a way, the narrative – the story of Akhnaten the Pharaoh who exchanged a polytheistic (many gods) belief system for a monotheistic system (worship of the sun disc) – is irrelevant, and the programme contains a detailed synopsis, libretto and copious accompanying notes. Simply allow yourself to be bathed in Glass’s rapturous music and feast your eyes on this captivating and evocative production.

‘Akhnaten’ continues in repertory at English National Opera until 18th March 2016

(Header image: Clive Bayley, Anthony Roth Costanzo, James Cleverton and Colin Judson, photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Philip Glass

As a string player who can make a claim to only the most rudimentary pianistic ability (accompanying On the Dodgems in a pupil’s ABRSM preparatory test really did make me go cross-eyed), I embarked on this Pianist’s Alphabet entry on Philip Glass with the fitting trepidation of the interloper.

Why do I want to write about Philip Glass’s piano music? The answer is envy. There are many marvellous tricks that we string players can execute – vibrato, portamento, flying staccato – but one thing that is harder for us is the motoric or raindrop ostinato which is so integral to Philip Glass’s music. We can try, in pieces like Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, but various physical impediments stand in the way of pellucid purity, the bow being the major one; therefore, in Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, we are far better suited to the long notes, which can be made expressive with different bow pressure, or judicious vibrato No doubt there are also many difficulties inherent in Glass’s piano music, which require the same attention to the voicing and spinning out of its long harmonic lines as a piece of Bach, but the results are marvellous: mesmeric, crystalline, resonant, and eloquent, despite the ‘limitations’ Glass places on his musical palette.

Like many people – I assume – I first became properly acquainted with Glass’s music through film scores (specifically The Hours and Notes on a Scandal) and when I came to know more of his music, I began to wonder how it was that his minimalism possessed such rhetorical power. I also wondered why so many people, hearing similar styles of music, by composers less aesthetically adept than Glass would tut ‘Sounds like Philip Glass’ with a dismissive, mirthless laugh.

In Tristian Evans’s Music, Multimedia, and Postminimalism (Ashgate: 2015), the author’s more positive and open-minded analyses explore why Glass’s music possesses such infinite adaptability, moving between the spheres of absolute music and ‘film music’ with ease – an ease which, as Edward Strickland writes in New Grove, has led to Glass becoming ‘one of the most commercially successful, and critically reviled, composers of his generation.’ You can read an example of such criticism by Justin Davidson, in the New York magazine. However, the ways that Davidson, amongst others, censures Glass, are precisely the reasons why I like his piano music: Glass is famous for his musical intertextuality (mainly quotations of his own ideas) and references to other music. In his Etude No. 2, there’s a clear referential link to the first Prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and it is pursuing the twisted paths of motivic reference – through the repetition that Davidson finds so distasteful – that I love.

Finally, performance. As an encore to Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat at the 2015 Proms, the Labèque sisters played the fourth of Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos. Witnessing the intricacy of their interaction, the delicacy required to balance the musical texture, and extract its essential melodic trajectory, was a masterclass in communicative, rhapsodic piano playing.

Corrina Connor