Philip Glass’s undulating, ecstatic opera in the key of resistance returns to ENO for a third time, and it’s an honest to the gods near-spiritual experience of sharp, hot beauty and political provocation. Director Phelim McDermott’s production well deserves the acclaim that’s been heaped upon it in the six years since its premiere: its balancing of eye-widening spectacle and delicate intimacy is unrivalled, and despite the stately ritualism of its pacing, its message cuts deep and fierce.
Glass’s opera, the second in his ‘Portrait Trilogy’, traces Mahatma Gandhi’s stand for Indian independence in those two vital decades at the beginning of the 20th century. Each act is overseen by a great figure in the orbit of Ghandi’s philosophy of satyagraha, the soul’s ability to remove opposition or alter hearts through force of truth rather than violence. Tolstoy, the father of the school of Christ-inspired ‘Tolstoyan’ philosophy which was so influential on Ghandi’s developing thoughts on passive resistance; Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali song-writer and poet; and Rev Dr Martin Luther-King, leading the thread of Ghandi’s principles and practise into the heart of the century.
Tagore’s presence extends a hand backwards to the first part of the portrait trilogy, Einstein on the Beach, and the famous conversation between the two great men, where the nature of truth and the place or non-place man takes in its creation is debated, unites the two operas as portraits of the greater century – descriptions of change in the birth of modernity and the redefinition of freedom.
Glass’s opera takes sections of the Bhagavad Gita as its libretto, and the story is framed by the meeting of Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna on the Kuru Field of Justice. The libretto is delivered in Sanskrit without the distraction of surtitles. Instead, snatches of text are projected onto the stage. As in Einstein, there is an impressionist bent to the narrative, but here there is also a more definitive chronology – a directness and even a didacticism.
McDermott is liberal with his visionary set-pieces. The warring puppet-giants of Kuru, the sky of floating lanterns as a peasant ascends to the heavens on a moon of papier-mâché, the monstrous leering ghouls of the imperial ruling classes, the bonfire of identity papers that ignites Ghandi’s gentle revolution. Julian Crouch’s set belies its initial appearance as a familiar ENO wrap-around to open, close, fracture and rise in sympathy with McDermott’s considerable visual ambition. If the scale threatens to tumble into self-parody during the closing minutes of the final act, McDermott and Crouch have comfortably secured enough credit to get away with it.
Glass’s score is spirographic, geometric repetitions peppered with sudden variations and deft tonal lunges. The beginning of Act 2, in which Ghandi faces the mockery of the European middle classes in Port Durban is a cyclone of cruel anger, as choruses of ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ twist and circle, and the impressive chorus wheel madly around the rim of Glass’s trademark aural whirlpool.
Alan Oke is a terrific Ghandi, even if his resemblance to Walter White (emphasis on the white) is initially disconcerting. The tenor’s solos tend to come at the conclusion of an explosion of onstage violence and spectacle, and by emphasising the quietness and tenderness of the music, Oke creates a Ghandi that seems appropriately powerful in his refusal to answer bombast with bombast.
What should astound, however, is the production’s ability to support smaller, cannier images of oppression in the midst of all its technical majesty. The polishing of shoes in Act One takes on a new significance when King is ushered into his suit and shined mirror bright by assistants. Newspapers and print become complex symbols of both oppression and rebellion – writhing like a nest of vipers, or plastering the faces of gargantuan and hideous puppet-overlords. There’s something of frequent Glass-collaborator Robert Wilson in its suspicion of the written word, the vehicle for so much of Gandhi’s influence, but also a weapon of his enemies, embodied in laws and libels and registration documents.
It’s a densely constructed opera, but one which asks you to approach it at a measured pace and without painful concentration. Its images build gradually and hang meditatively in the air. Its message about satyagraha feels undimmed in the thirty-odd years since Glass completed it, as does its difficult suggestion that the price of freedom will always be self-sacrifice, and that (fatal or otherwise) the condition of change is usually martyrdom.