Satyagraha review at London Coliseum – ‘an unforgettable experience’

Toby Spence in Satyagraha at London Coliseum. Photo: Tristram Kenton Toby Spence in Satyagraha at London Coliseum. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The most successful staging of a contemporary work English National Opera has ever presented, Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’ opera about Gandhi’s use of non-violence as a means of effecting political change is revived for the third time.

While Glass’ music itself will continue to divide listeners, more and more of them seem able to appreciate how its sophisticated use of the simplest and most fundamental of materials can create large and subtly nuanced structures. As demonstrated here, ENO must certainly be counted one of the most expert companies anywhere in terms of performing his scores to the highest standards.

Set in South Africa between 1896 and 1913, Satyagraha (‘truth-force’) draws on ancient Sanskrit religious texts and is sung in that language: more surtitles would be useful.

Nevertheless, aided by brilliant video designs courtesy of 59 Productions, and a variety of other skills associated with the creative collective Improbable – including puppetry, aerialism and acrobatics – McDermott’s inventive staging comes up with an unstoppable flow of striking visual images.

Together with Improbable’s skills ensemble, ENO’s fully engaged principals and chorus succeed in creating a staging of virtuoso physicality allied to musical sensitivity and intellectual clarity: rarely are all the elements of an opera brought together so flawlessly as they are here.

At the heart of the show is Toby Spence’s thoughtful, cleanly sung Gandhi — human, touching and infinitely dignified as his ideas develop into actions that will change the course of history.

The secondary roles, too – reflecting Gandhi’s co-workers and supporters, often in conflict with the wider South African community portrayed by the chorus – are impeccably done.

A Glass specialist, conductor Karen Kamensek combines precision with steadiness and flexibility in supervising a musical performance that is both contemplative and stimulating, and at its best transcendent.

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Phelim McDermott’s staging of Philip Glass’ Gandhi opera once again provides an unforgettable experience.