Satyagraha, English National Opera, London Coliseum, December 2013

The performance on 6th December 2013 was a special occasion, quite unplanned. Philip Glass’s paean to the peaceful revolution embodied by Mahatma Gandhi, with its allusions to Martin Luther King, whose back-view we see in Act III, speaking on a podium, was preceded by a commemoration for Nelson Mandela, who had died just 24 hours earlier. Before the curtain rose, artistic director John Berry came to the front to request the audience stand for a minute’s silence. Thus was framed Glass’s 1980 opera, which may well have featured Mandela in its conception were it written fifteen years later.

Satyagraha, Alan Oke as Ghandi. Photo by Alistair Muir

Sadly the present run of performances is almost at an end, but Peter Relton’s revival of Phelim McDermott’s wonderfully theatrical production has an immediacy and freshness that I found more gripping than the first time around, nearly four years ago. Stuart Stratford in the orchestra pit beautifully brought out the power and emotion in this music, and though it was the same conductor and many of the same singers as when the production was new, there was if anything a sharper focus this time, with music and staging forming an enchanting combination. Even in Act III where there is less happening on stage, the music had a power of its own to evoke feelings of a great battle against repression being won after the pain and frustrations of a huge struggle.

In the earlier acts where there are allusions to great battles, in one case fought by giants composed of ordinary materials such as garbage and baskets, the team effort of the performers created the magic that live action on can sometimes achieve. And throughout it all, long lines of vocal sound in Sanskrit were beautifully realised by a cast led by Alan Oke as Gandhi, whose vocal control and calm stage presence helped bring this superbly contemplative work to life. Among the other principals I found Clare Eggington’s voice particularly beautiful, but this was a team effort by principals, chorus and actors, and I look forward to a further revival of this remarkable staging in a few years time.

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