For an opera lover in the prima le parole mould, where narrative, characterisation and poetry are at the core of the experience, Philip Glass’ Satyagraha requires, to put it mildly, some realignment. The text, taken from the Bhagavad Gita, is in Sanskrit, generally rendered without surtitles, the narrative is fragmentary and non-linear (you need the programme notes to understand it) and the characters – other than the principal figure of Gandhi himself – are something of a blur.

Toby Spence (Gandhi), ENO chorus © Donald Cooper
Toby Spence (Gandhi), ENO chorus
© Donald Cooper

Before you start, therefore, you need to reset your expectations of what an opera is and does. The Bhagavad Gita is a work of meditation, a dialogue in which Prince Arjuna is prepared by his God/mentor Krishna for the struggles he will face. Satyagraha makes no attempt at being a biopic of Gandhi: its purpose is to cause its viewer/listener to meditate on the nature of heroic struggle, helped along the way by Glass’ music and by a series of fragmentary images of Gandhi’s fight, in his early life, for the human rights of the Indian community in South Africa.

Glass’ music is supremely effective at bringing you into a meditative, trance-like state. His use of insistent, repetitive rhythmic figures is well charted; what struck me in this performance was the way he uses harmony: a repeated arpeggio will change by a single note – perhaps just a semitone, somewhere in the middle of the chord – with the repeats getting your ear used to the new harmony before another single note change moves it on. What seems at first to be static and repetitive is actually constantly in motion (slow motion, compared to the notes themselves, of which there are many); the music grabs you and drags you with it until you reach that trance-like state.

Nicholas Folwell, Anna-Clare Monk, Charlotte Beament, Toby Spence, Clive Bayley, Stephanie Marchell © Donald Cooper
Nicholas Folwell, Anna-Clare Monk, Charlotte Beament, Toby Spence, Clive Bayley, Stephanie Marchell
© Donald Cooper

Karen Kamensek and the ENO Orchestra excelled at the very unique requirements of this score: they kept the rhythms precisely on the nail, a difficult task given that the accenting is continuously shifting around; the accents came through with clarity; the different orchestral timbres were kept in balance so that no single component ever overwhelmed the whole.

Satyagraha makes even greater demands on the chorus than it does on the orchestra: they are required to sing for most of the two and a half hours, in Sanskrit, with the same need for rhythmic consistency while shifting accents. There are also some fiendish individual passages, such as the repeated figure of staccato ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah that permeates Act 2. The ENO chorus were magnificent, they made light of the difficulties and combined wonderfully with the orchestra to produce the hypnotic effect of this music.

Toby Spence performed well as Gandhi, sounding clear, smooth of timbre and strong enough to cut above the orchestra. He showed the stage presence to portray Gandhi in the iconic way with which we have become familiar. Otherwise, this isn’t an opera in which there’s much point in singling out the soloists – much of the time, indeed, it's hard to tell who is who. However, one voice stood out: Charlotte Beament’s soprano soared beautifully above the ensemble.

Puppetry in Act 2, Toby Spence and ENO Chorus © Donald Cooper
Puppetry in Act 2, Toby Spence and ENO Chorus
© Donald Cooper

Phelim McDermott’s staging, first seen in 2007, is an extraordinary work of theatrical art. The singers are supplemented by a “skills ensemble” who create magic on stage, not least from extraordinary puppetry. The battling warriors discussed by Krishna and Arjuna give us our first taste of the incredible workmanship; even more virtuosic are the giant heads that overlook proceedings in Act 2. There should be some kind of award for most creative use of sticky tape: rolls of tape are used to create a fence across the whole stage, which then transforms into a stick person in front of our eyes. Julian Crouch’s sets are based around two materials: corrugated iron (the archetypal colonial building material) and newsprint. A significant scene in Act 2 involves the newspaper Indian Opinion; this is taken as a cue to influence the whole production aesthetic. Kevin Pollard’s costumes are superbly executed.

"Satyagraha" is Gandhi's name for his principle of non-violent resistance and the philosophy surrounging it. Each act is watched over by one of three iconic figures, who represent what in Gandhi's time were the past, present and future of satyagraha: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. It’s a good idea to come into the opera knowing more about Tolstoy than the greatness of his novels and to understand something of Tagore’s relationship with Gandhi.

You might have any kind of reaction to Satyagraha. You might run screaming from the room after ten minutes of Sanskrit chanting. More likely, you might zone into the work and enter a glorious, spaced out, meditative state. In my case, that’s where I was at the end of Act 2; however, I lost the trance in the course of Act 3, which is even more static than the previous two. My only recommendation is that you try it and see.