The idea that a meditative, minimalist opera about Gandhi, sung in Sanskirit, would be a crowd-pleasing winner sounds implausible, but Philip Glass’s 'Satyagraha' has proved the most popular contemporary work ever staged at English National Opera. Then again, Improbable is the name of the company whose inspired collaboration with ENO lies behind the work’s astonishing success.
First mounted in 2007 and now revived for a second time, director-designer duo Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s production remains spellbinding, working simultaneously as dazzling spectacle and expressive embodiment of the opera’s ideas. On paper, those ideas do sound daunting. The second of Glass’s trilogy of operas about men who changed the world, bracketed by 'Einstein on the Beach' and 'Akhnaten', 'Satyagraha' explores Gandhi’s years in South Africa as he strove to develop non-violent protest as a political tool, a concept he called ‘truth force’ (satyagraha in Sanskrit). There isn’t a narrative - which is probably a good thing given that the opera is sung in the language of the Bhagavada Gita - but Gandhi’s spiritual journey comes across powerfully all the same.
As Glass’s hypnotic score swirls from the pit, McDermott and Crouch unleash an array of stilt walkers, aerialists and puppeteers, who occupy the stage alongside the singers. Giant puppets embody battling Hindu gods; grotesque papier maché figures represent repressive politicians; and a silent spiritual guardian presides over each act - Leo Tolstoy, Indian poet Tagore and Martin Luther King - precursors or inheritors of Gandhi’s non-violent ideals. You would think these devices would make matters even more bewildering, yet somehow the images and the music are in perfect harmony.
Returning to the opera’s central role, tenor Alan Oke holds things together with his beautiful singing and charismatic presence. The other soloists give solid support, particularly Clare Eggington, who provides flights of soaring soprano as Gandhi’s secretary. Meanwhile, conductor Stuart Stratford has his baton on the pulse of Glass’s mesmerising score. Jason Best