Celebrating its Swiss première here in Basel, Satyagraha celebrates the philosophy of non-violent resistance that Mahatma Gandhi taught, lived by example, and made into a highly effective political force. Philip Glass and his co-librettist Constance DeJong evoked the birth of the Satyagraha (“the power of truth”) movement, its gradual evolution, and its renaissance in the 1960s. Chronologically, the action moves back and forth freely among Gandhi’s formative South African years (1983-1914).

Nicholas Crawley (Parsi Rustomji), Rolf Romei (Gandhi) and Eastman © Koen Broos
Nicholas Crawley (Parsi Rustomji), Rolf Romei (Gandhi) and Eastman
© Koen Broos

In treating their historical subject as a kind of myth, and including a palette of associative images rather than historically accurate sequences, Glass and DeJong wove “spiritual guardians” − three major figures who shared Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence − into their story fabric: Leo Tolstoy in Act 1; the Indian mystic and poet Rabindranarth Tagore in Act 2, and the American civil rights advocate Martin Luther King in Act 3. The libretto draws on the verses of the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Indian epic central to the Hindu faith, and as such, the opera is sung exclusively in Sanskrit.

For some Philip Glass listeners, the pervasiveness of repetitive beats and relentlessly dense fabric may seem too drawn out, or even a tiresome intrusion. Yet paying tribute to the composer’s 80th birthday, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui refigured the opera into a ballet for this production, adding a dance component that I found pivotal to its unerring success. With the zipper of running notes, and hardly a minute’s rest in the first two acts, Eastman dance troupe’s performance gave the music given better shape. Reflecting the repeats and simple progressions over countless scales in dance made a hypnotic event and gave a whole new dimension to the opera.

As Gandhi, Rolf Romei gave a compassionate yet muscular performance. In the scene where his opponents beat him, he even delivered parts of his aria while stretched out over his accusers’ shoulders, or fully upside down. As his wife Kasturbai, Maren Favela was spry and supportive, her voice beautifully moderated throughout. The very fine Cathrin Lange sang the role of Miss Schlesen in a silvery soprano that carried the whole house in its hand. I particularly liked the inherently compassionate tone Anna Rajah brought to Mrs. Naidoo; and the scene in which the three women meandered over a figure they had drawn by dropping ritual paint – in a “path to enlightenment” − on the stage floor. Andrew Murphy sang a rich-voiced European Mr Kallenbach, and Nicholas Crawley was the marvellous blue-faced, gold-crowned Krishna. Sofia Pavone, a member of the Opernstudio OperAvenir, and Basel’s adaptable Karl-Heinz Brandt sang the supporting roles of Mrs Alexander and the hero Arjuna, the character who is partial to Gandhi’s brief from the very first.

Rolf Romei (Gandhi) and Eastman © Sandra Then
Rolf Romei (Gandhi) and Eastman
© Sandra Then

The Eastman’s six principal dancers – two women and four men – settled Glass’ opera comfortably into the dance-theatre genre. They shared a scope that ranged from the highly athletic and angled, to the sinuous curves of arms and legs that knew no limitations, either in variation of movements or emotive potency. Street dance was as much integrated as were the convex/concaves of less contemporary forms.

Henrik’s Ahr’s brilliant stage design was as simple as it was powerful. Some two dozen thin steel cables that apportioned the space into an ever-present grid suspended a single metal platform, sometimes tilted at its far end. Rather than inhibiting the players, the grid pointed to the pervasive theme of “conscious separation”, and Roland Edrich’s ingenious lighting also underscored that nicely. At the end of Act 3, the whole platform carried the principal singers to higher ground, to the metaphorical sphere that paralleled their determination and aspirations, even though torturous gyrations and the cramped, hellish, red-lit space of the “underlings” far below reminded us of the remaining struggle.

Rolf Romei (Gandhi), Eastman, and Sofia Pavone (Mrs Alexander) © Sandra Then
Rolf Romei (Gandhi), Eastman, and Sofia Pavone (Mrs Alexander)
© Sandra Then

Under conductor Jonathan Stockhammer’s confident baton, the Basel Symphony Orchestra performed Glass’ physically gruelling score with conviction and precision. The house choir (Henryk Polus, director) also had its fair share of choreographed hand- and body movements; despite that additional challenge, their work stayed spot on.  

That this opera premiered close to forty years ago might have seen its message outdated in the interim. On the contrary, the narrative shows a man who – on the power of his own persistence – affected real change in his world. Satyagraha emerges as a clear call, regardless of time or place, to work on perpetuating independent thought and equality among cultures. The opera remains a moving tribute to the supreme merits of pacifism and civil courage, and particularly in this era of vituperous accusations and marginalization of groups that are “other”, its message has resounding resonance.