Review: Satyagraha

I went to see the Philip Glass opera, Satyagraha (on until May 1 in London), on the eve of my birthday - perhaps vaguely apt, since Glass (pictured) is celebrating his 70th this year. Before moving from the blogger's narcissism which almost grounds the form and content, the very context, of such posts, let me add that I was very glad to do so, since not only has Glass afforded me much aural pleasure for at least 25 years (since I was fifteen or thereabouts, in other words), the subject of the opera, Gandhi, has inspired my work for peace, since at least the age of 19, when my father first gave me a book of his on Gandhi and Tolstoy; and, indeed, Tolstoy appears (silently) in this production, alongside other figures related through time, history and the search for peace, such as Tagore and Dr. King.

This production by the ENO is, astonishingly for such an important and beautiful work, its UK premiere, though it was first performed in 1980 by the Netherlands Opera. Unlike the other famous Western cultural version, the film that won the Oscars, this work stays focussed on the South Africa years, 1896 to 1913 and the New Castle March. It hardly needs saying that the theme of the opera is resonant today: peaceful resolution of conflict with regards to resistance of imperialist force. While many would see this as a rejection of the Bush Doctrine, it is also fair to note that no one in Iraq at the moment seems to be employing the methods of M.K. Gandhi with much success. The man remains a legend, his methods often neglected in the world of action - our own time's equivalent hero, Mandela, did not renounce violence as utterly, did he?

The opera is long - three acts, 150 minutes. The first two are as mesmerizing as the mind or ear could hope to expect - the combination of the voice of Alan Oke in the lead, the chorus, the repetitive, haunting music, and the bizarre and provocative stagecraft of Improbable is superb. It is only in the last 30 minutes that - as an Obama-style version of Dr. King gesticulates in the background on a huge raised plinth - a sort of post-modern tedium sets in - one induced paradoxically by the fact that, in the last 20 years, the music that Glass once championed along with Reich and Adams has become, if not the norm, then clearly mainstream (often used in film scores, and not just recently); this overfamiliar minimalist pulse, at once lulling and upsetting, with time can wear thin. Still, myself and my friends were deeply moved, in the whole, by the the power of the staging, the vocal performances, and especially the second act.

Glass is a major composer of his American moment, but, comparing this to last year's magisterial Nixon In China, also at the ENO, I am afraid to say perhaps villains make better subjects. Perhaps Glass should write an opera, then, on the Bush Doctrine, after all.
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