Saturday 7 December 2013

Satyagraha at ENO, or in which it is again demonstrated that Philip Glass is not up to writing the Big Ideas Opera

This was my third Glass opera. I had reservations about Einstein on the Beach and I thought The Perfect American dull so I did not have high hopes of this and went principally because I'm a completionist when it comes to opera and wanted to tick it off the list. It is clear that there is an audience for Glass, the Upper Circle was fuller than I have seen any part of the Coliseum for a very long time. That it was fuller than for the musically infinitely superior Billy Budd (the last time I sat in that part of the house) I find really quite depressing. Maybe it's me, but I just cannot see much in Glass at all.

Glass's first cardinal sin in this opera and the one that makes me angriest, is with regard to the text. Modern opera directors are always ripping established texts to pieces, or ignoring them, or interpolating bits of other classic texts. Glass has a different strategy here, and one already visible in Einstein on the Beach. He apparently thinks the text is irrelevant. This is the only basis on which I can see any justification for the rule that this opera must be sung in Sanskrit and that proper surtitles are not allowed. I now feel I have a somewhat better idea of what neophyte Wagner-goers must have struggled with in the pre-surtitle age. It is true that bits of text are occasionally projected onto the set but these were not always visible from my seat, and are sufficiently intermittent that one can rarely be sure who is singing what. It is no defence to say the text is printed in the programme or on a printed sheet – this is unreadable once the house lights go down. As far as I was concerned for most of the evening the performers might just as well have been singing “la” to everything. Maybe I'm old fashioned but I happen to think text quite important to successful opera.

The next issue, again visible in Einstein on the Beach but less of a problem there because that is intended as mockery of the form, is the basic absence of any interest in narrative or character. To adapt Michael Flanders, you musn't think that the rather fanciful scene titles we project have anything to do with what is actually going on on stage. If you really want to, you can read the historical context for the various scenes on the printed crib sheet, and then while away the long quarter hours by trying to work out a) how what is going on in each scene relates to the alleged title of the scene and b) how all the scenes taken together add up to some kind of coherent whole. Once again there are clearly some people (of whom John Berry judging by his pre-curtain remarks about Mandela's passing is one) who think this show is telling us profound things about Gandhi and other non-violent activists. I don't think it does anything of the sort – I came away with no greater insight about him, his time or his beliefs than I went in with, and certainly without any feeling of having been emotionally engaged by his struggle, or indeed by anybody else on stage.

But the biggest problem underlying all of this is the basic paucity of Glass's music. I cannot think of another composer who has been so overrated. It isn't that I detest American minimalism. I am a big John Adams fan (now there's a contemporary composer who is brilliantly capable of tackling significant themes in his operas), and there are pieces by Steve Reich which have struck me very forcibly. But there just seems to me to be so little to Glass – especially when it comes to drama. As I said on twitter after The Perfect American Glass clearly thinks he is writing big things about important ideas and people, the trouble is his musical vocabulary just isn't up to the job. For the first two acts it was just about bearable, the third act I found interminable.

I suspect part of the show's success is to do with the production by Phelim McDermott and Improbable. The movement, the giant puppets, the versatile set, the aerials and stilt walkers all combine to create wonderful visuals, I don't deny that. But you can't build even good opera on successful visual imagery alone – they are another thing failed by the composer.

The same can be said for the musical performances. This show is finely sung and played. Alan Oke, who impressed me earlier this year as Grimes at Aldeburgh gives an excellent performance as Gandhi. The supporting cast, the chorus and orchestra all give it everything under the able direction of Stuart Stratford. But it doesn't matter how well you sing and play if the score isn't up to the job.

Unlike others of John Berry's misguided modern choices of recent years it has to be conceded that this show does seem to bring in an audience. But as far as I'm concerned it is yet another occasion when ENO has lavished its limited resources on a very second rank work.

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