Philip Glass’s Satyagraha is an opera about Gandhi, sort of. Just revived at ENO in a Phelim McDermott production best remembered for its fabulous if frivolous giant puppetry, this is a piece with no narrative, no action, and a wilfully inscrutable Sanskrit libretto that hangs on the Mahatma but is more broadly a meditation about truth and time.
It takes its title from a word of Gandhi’s own invention, meaning “truth-force”, which is linguistically obscure. And Glass’s opera is a celebration of obscurity. It plays like ritual rather than drama: slowly, and to childlike musical devices – endlessly repeating scales, arpeggios and common chords – that either draw you into the composer’s soundworld with hypnotic force or leave you looking at your watch.
Myself, I used to rail against this unsophisticated baby language. Latterly, perhaps because I’ve formed an interest in Zen, I’ve given up the fight and find myself surrendering (almost) to its nothingness – admiring the audacity with which Glass makes so much from so little in the way of musical invention. He’s not one of the great orchestrators, but his handling of elementary harmonies comes with a certain radiance that I concede to be attractive.
Satyagraha is essentially a chorus exercise, and ENO’s chorus radiate nicely, although their coordination with the orchestra is hit-and-miss under conductor Karen Kamensek. Toby Spence makes the best he can of the thankless lead role, walking slowly up and down (it’s all he does) with visionary intensity as Gandhi. The supporting roles are sung with sometimes careless intonation by performers who have evidently lost the will to live.
Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is an awkward hybrid, something between a symphony and a viola concerto; and it played at St John’s, Smith Square the other week with an extraordinary 19th-century gran viola – an instrument so big and unwieldy it looked as though the soloist had a small cello under his chin. Apparently this monster impressed Berlioz as perfect for the piece, so it was interesting to hear it. But I can’t say the performance was a joy. The gran viola proved too much for Peter Sheppard Skaerved, playing it; and Harold (a formidably hard score) was too much for the amateur Royal Orchestral Society.
But another non-professional band, the Salomon Orchestra, did better at the same venue a few nights later, playing symphonies from the States by Bernstein and Barber. The Salomon has no permanent director, preferring to hire young conductors as and when; and it boasts a record of good picks, from Simon Rattle (many moons ago) to Graham Ross who conducted this Americana elegantly and effectively. A class act.
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