The law of diminishing returns is a mantrap for the chronic operagoer but, thankfully, there was no risk of it here. Phelim McDermott’s ingenious direction of Philip Glass’ semi-static masterpiece Satyagraha has been recreated with meticulous care in this fourth revival by Peter Relton and movement specialist Rob Thirtle. This time round English National Opera has laid on a bravura cast headed not (as on previous occasions) by a white Englishman but, more suitably, by an Asian-American tenor. For most of the opera’s three-hour-plus duration Sean Panikkar’s Gandhi remains onstage, a mutable but passive character whose evolution from natty young lawyer to spiritual leader is something that happens to him rather than through him.

Sean Panikkar (Gandhi)
© Tristram Kenton

The word ‘Satyagraha' referred to Gandhi's strategy of passive resistance against British rule in India, but the focus of Glass’ opera is more metaphysical than that. It is concerned, rather, with the denial of self in his pursuit of existential purity. There’s a paradox here, for humility, asceticism and the acceptance of pain are recurring themes in a score and a production that verge on the lush and voluptuous. The composer’s wash of repetitious minimalism only serves to hammer his romantic colours deeper into the listener’s skull, while McDermott’s visual inventiveness (the designs by Julian Crouch explore the outer reaches of imaginative stagecraft) is hieratic beauty unconfined.

Sean Panikkar (Gandhi) and ENO Chorus
© Tristram Kenton

The sung Sanskrit is intentionally indecipherable (there are no surtitles), the printed synopsis is all but impenetrable, certainly in the short time most people will have to read it before the lights go down, and the narrative jolts back and forth through time. Satyagraha is no history lesson; it’s a work of sensations, many of them abstract, and therefore insights into Gandhi the man, such as they are, are incidental. Set pieces abound, with giant grotesque puppets, eco-unfriendly amounts of adhesive tape and a whole Peter Pan-ful of aerial work.

Musa Ngqungwana (Lord Krishna)
© Tristram Kenton

Through it all, Panikkar’s serene presence burned with dignity. His character sings only intermittently yet he dominated every scene thanks to the force of his stillness and the illusion that he had become as one with the man he portrayed. When he did sing, the first-night audience hung on his every word, whatever it meant. He was surrounded by a company of artists who’d been given greater licence than he to colour their characters and all of them shone, no one more so than baritone Ross Ramgobin (Prince Arjuna) and bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana (Lord Krishna) who shared with Panikkar the score’s most compelling episode right at the start of the evening: a transcendent trio in which their voices blended seraphically.

Gabriella Cassidy, Verity Wingate and Felicity Buckland were similarly well-matched as the women in Gandhi’s life (respectively his secretary, his legal colleague and his wife) while mezzo Sarah Pring made a flamboyant intervention as Mrs Alexander, an overdressed European whose courageous support for him belied the norms of her social standing.

Sean Panikkar (Gandhi), Sarah Pring (Mrs Alexander) and ENO Chorus
© Tristram Kenton

Carolyn Kuan, an experienced interpreter of Glass (she conducted the premiere of his opera The Trial), secured terrific musicianship from the magnificent ENO Chorus and Orchestra, none of whose personnel showed the slightest hint of lockdown staleness. Between them they held the Coliseum audience in a grip of concentration throughout a performance that felt new-minted rather than dusted down. However, during an evening of distinguished recreations none shone more brightly than the man who revived Paule Constable’s 2007 lighting. In his own right Kevin Sleep has a 30-year West End run to his credit – The Woman in Black – and, as anyone who’s been chilled by that experience can vouch, he is the master of penumbral shade and atmosphere. It’s a skill that’s served him well on Satyagraha.

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