At a time of resurgence from COVID restrictions, we look at the relaunch of the Satyagraha Opera by Philip Glass, by the ENO English National Opera, on their first day back at their home London Coliseum after 19 months – and look at why this is both an Opera and performance for the moment.
It is a full twenty minutes before I fully understand why it is that people of all ages, aims, backgrounds, ambitions, love being part of the ENO Family, and what is the single thing that draws us all together.
It is not necessarily the music. True, this performance, its direction and delivery, is brilliant, stunning, mesmerising. My two colleagues next to me, the young lady with her teenage daughter are spellbound – they described it as “resonant” – and the introduction itself had rich luscious vocal lines, even though this was no Verdi. But it was the moment when the full chorus, from somewhere in the shadows suddenly came alive and you got this fabulous wall of sound. It was as if we had all been waiting for this, and it did not disappoint.
The depth and intensity of the desire to communicate – the continual hypnotic orchestral themes and continual variations of time signature – left me uncertain, and the hesitating steps of the protagonists on stage, as each carried their own line of music and text, was confusing.
But that did not matter. This was ENO saying; “look, we are here for a reason. Nobody smiles in this ‘Satyagraha’. We are taking a solemn story and winding it around new dimensions and images in ways that you might not have seen before. And we know how to do it.”
The girl in the interval, told me that there have been some preparatory sessions, to explain the thinking behind the staging, the strange larger than life puppet characters, etc. And I can understand the need for that. I spent the first two Acts unsure of what was going on, sitting on the edge of my seat, sometimes – particularly in act 2 – actually scared. Did I really come to the Opera to be scared? And simultaneously intrigued, drawn in.
They say that “Satyagraha” is what they call a “marmite” opera; you either love it or hate it. And talking with members of the audience generally, that division is still there, The complicated story line and topics it is trying to explain, create a sort of Bach on steroids musical structure, or a Big Burger with nineteen different layers, there is just so much going on.
And there are so many clever aspects to communicate. The key points are brilliantly highlighted by the very clever use of Newspapers from the time, that assemble and re-assemble to form impromptu screens that display key words on stage as we go. The symbolism of frankly everything is just too much for one evening alone, for an average opera goer who just wants a night out with some music.
But that itself misses the point. To deliver this sort of cohesion and perfection requires absolute singing and musical quality and I am not going to single out any particular artist or group. It just all works.
Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe this is simply the formula, perhaps redolent of when I first saw “Two Boys” with Mary Bevan, that I first understood ENOs prowess with modern opera. But that too is unfair.
This “Satyagraha” is an opera that reflects a different age of how we communicate themes that are as relevant today as they have always been. Did I like it? No, I don’t think so. Did I love it?. Absolutely!