With Satyagraha Philip Glass’ trilogy reaches an amazing climax. The opera traces the early years of Mahatma Ghandi in Transvaal, South Africa, where he developed his vision of non-violence into a political tool to confront that country’s oppressive race laws threatening to virtually enslave the local Indian community.

In a beautifully integrated collaboration of Mary More’s set design, Geoff Cobham’s lighting, Leigh Warren’s directing and choreography, and Timothy Sexton as conductor and chorus master, everything comes together creating a performance of outstanding beauty. The deceptively simple set is composed of seven raked steps (maybe an allusion to the seven stages of enlightenment) bathed in blue light, leading to a large circular opening at the rear, which doubles as a focus for mood-creating lighting arrangements.

Satyagraha © Darren Williams Photography
Satyagraha
© Darren Williams Photography
Adam Goodburn excels as Ghandi – he even looks like him. His clear, tenor voice commands from the time it is first heard in his meeting with Prince Arjuna (Mark Oates, with a catching timbre in his baritone) and Lord Krishna (Joshua Rowe, a rich melodic bass), key figures in the Bhagavad Gita (the source of Satyagraha’s libretto). They combine well to argue the merits of action over non-action in times of conflict. The next two hours tell of Ghandi’s decision to choose the latter.

In this production much is demanded of the exquisitely drilled chorus whose deliberate, slow dance movements suggest the deeper involvement that creates a transcendent atmosphere.

The first act ends with the chorus assuming the role of oppressed Indians following through with their vow to resist the oppressive laws by burning their registration cards. As each lights the paper and drops it in a bin the depth and power of their singing grows in intensity. The swell of emotion becomes so palpable I could not escape the feeling of wanting to unite with them in their quest. Few operatic moments have roused me so powerfully.

Satyagraha © Darren Williams Photography
Satyagraha
© Darren Williams Photography
Act II commenced with some light relief. It depicts the occasion when Ghandi, being mobbed by hostile white settlers (first depicted by menacing dancers, then by the chorus) is rescued by Mrs. Alexander, the wife of the police superintendent, dressed as a Mary Poppins look-alike and brandishing an unfurled umbrella, while Deborah Johnson, with a strong mezzo-soprano voice, sung the role from the side.

As the opera proceeds so does Ghandi’s transformation, exemplified by his change from dressing as an English gentleman to wearing a simple dhoti. By the end of Act II the transformation is complete, and sets the stage for one of the most moving pieces of the whole trilogy – the dramatic outcome of their non-violent resistance which forces the authorities to fill the gaols to overflowing with all who disobey the oppressive laws. Here Goodman is brilliant, as initially alone on stage he commences his chant. It is ethereal, haunting, otherworldly. It rises to a transcendental plane, as the chorus, in measured pace take up places around him, creating a beautifully balanced tableau. Their voices make a rich wall of sound as prison bars drop, one by one, to cage them in.

Act III, entitled ‘New Castle (1913)’ shows the invitation to New Castle miners to march in solidarity to the Transvaal border. It begins with a moving duet from Ghandi’s wife, Kasturbai, and co-worker, Mrs Naidoo, standing behind him giving support. The bold mezzo-soprano of Cherie Boogaart and rich soprano of Naomi Hede are captivating, their diction seeming so clear (the opera is sung in Sanskrit, the language of the Bhagavad-Gita).

The single scene of Act III is the seventh scene of the opera and leads to the depiction of Ghandi’s ultimately achieving the seventh, and final, level of enlightenment. There is a sense of simple majesty as he lays down on the seventh step, bathed in white light, while across the steps dancers assume the lotus position and arm-dance impressions of liberation – the wings of birds lifting into flight – the reaching for transcendent heights – the floating of gossamers in the breeze. And thus, with a sense of great achievement, Satyagraha concludes in gentleness. 

This has been a stunning production of Satyagraha, which delivers a rich spiritual, almost transcendental, experience, concluding a remarkable triple performance of Philip Glass’ portrait operas. It has been a great experience to hear them together, and while far from the cohesiveness of a Wagner Ring, there are enough musical links between the three to more than justify them being performed as a unit.

The performance of Akhnaten, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha in trilogy has been a remarkably noteworthy achievement, made more so by the extremely high standard of all who have contributed. They have aimed for and achieved excellence.