It’s disappointing to think that it has taken so long for Opera Australia to open their windows onto the works of Philip Glass, one of the most prolific and influential composers of our time.
In a career spanning more than six decades, Glass has produced more than 20 operas – in the process, challenging and redefining what conservatives believe opera to be.
The feeling from the audience who came to their feet at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on Saturday evening’s one-night-only concert performance of his opera, Satyagraha, was not only rapture for how remarkable the musical execution and sublime the singing were, but for how mesmerisingly Glass’ drug-like work soaks into the soul.
Composed in 1978-79 and based on the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha premiered in 1980. Meaning “truth force” in Sanskrit, ‘Satyagraha’ was a term adopted by Ghandi to describe his philosophy of non-violent resistance.
With its audacious blend of pulsing orchestral writing, ethereal vocal overlays and a libretto by Glass and Constance De Jong’s adaptation of the epic 700-verse Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, which Gandhi knew and studied, Satyagraha represents one of the late 20th century’s prime examples of composition that has given unique form to operatic style.
The opera’s three acts depict episodes in Gandhi’s life, loosely based on his 21 years in South Africa. Each act is titled by an historical figure having a connection with Gandhi to reflect the work’s central message of pacifism – Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Act 1), Indian poet and activist Ravindranath Tagore (Act 2) and Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader (Act 3).
Giving the impression more of an expressive sketch of Gandhi’s philosophy, both mythical and real aspects are integrated into the fabric. Maintaining the Sanskrit script, Satyagraha is opera as a two-hour-plus meditation.
For all this, it might be difficult to imagine how successfully it can be done in a fully staged production but directors have shown how powerfully it can be achieved – English director Phelim McDermott’s English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera co-production and Leigh Warren’s State Opera of South Australia production are two excellent examples I know of from experience.
It seemed that Opera Australia wasn’t quite sure how best to present the work. Many attempts by director Andy Morton to give Satyagraha substance and animation in a concert performance provided both little benefit and occasional distraction.
Apart from some astute positioning of the soloists and the spare use of the Sanskrit translation projected at the rear, nothing more was needed, except perhaps for more sophisticated lighting. In all, the power of the performance resided in music and voice.
The score is limited to strings and woodwind, comprising simple, undulating and metamorphosing repetitions that cast their hypnotic quality with ease.
Orchestra Victoria rose to the occasion with clockwork precision under the baton of Tahu Matheson, who brought both a captivating sense of fluidity and great bursts of punctuated intensity to the score. Notably, Matheson balanced the orchestral soundscape with the cast of eight exceptional soloists and the sizeable Opera Australia Chorus with thoroughly expert and judicious leadership.
In a career that has seen him taking stride after stride, switching from heavy metal to opera on a path to success, Indian-Australian tenor Shanul Sharma’s Gandhi was an achievement like few others. Vocally light but athletic and gleaming in quality, Sharma impressively navigated the role’s often lower written range with effortlessness.
Matched impeccably to meet the demands of a charismatic leader and attired in a white suit, Sharma embodied the spirit of Gandhi with calm command. From the first few notes accompanied by pensive bass strings and with heartfelt humility, Sharma brought immediate attention to the man whose elevation to the echelon of greats he went on to stunningly depict in the work’s divine silken-threaded conclusion.
Wearing an embroidered Nehru jacket and appropriately honouring the title ‘Mahatma’, meaning “venerable” and “high-souled”, Sharma’s was an astonishingly emotional performance that no doubt brought tears to more eyes than mine.
Every surrounding soloist addressed their roles in excellent form. Soprano Rachelle Durkin fired up a compelling performance as Gandhi’s secretary, Mrs Schlesen, giving a stellar display of fortissimo power in Act 2’s Scene 2 conclusion of Indian Opinion.
For 20 years with Opera Australia, Richard Anderson has often seen the limelight shining on leading roles around him but, as Indian co-worker, Parsi Rustomji and doubling as Lord Krishna, Anderson completely relished the moment in both roles, his authoritative bass showing especially confident and thundering command in Act 2, Scene 3’s The Vow.
In similar spotlight class, muscular-voiced baritone Andrew Moran energised European co-worker Mr Kallenbach splendidly while radiant soprano Olivia Cranwell’s Mrs Naidoo, a follower of Gandhi, and dark mezzo-soprano Agnes Sarkis’ Kasturbai, activist and Gandhi’s wife, excelled individually and in sumptuous pairing.
Meaty baritone Alexander Sefton’s solid contribution as the mythical Prince Arjuna and mezzo-soprano Sian Sharp’s brief but colossally impactful Mrs Alexander rounded out what could be considered a perfectly cast outfit.
Added to the mix, the assured voices of the Opera Australia Chorus shaped every note from the delicate to the voluminous, including threads of snappy pizzicato, in beautifully harmonised form.
The highlights kept coming as the shifts of momentum transported thoughts in all sorts of directions. Caught in its inescapable vibration, you would’ve perhaps contemplated life’s purpose or, for a brief moment, caught yourself planning the next day’s to-do list amongst the intoxicating repetitions. Nothing shameful about that! It all feels part of the moving experience Glass so brilliantly provides.
Satyagraha in Concert
Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 13 May 2023 – 7.30pm
Information, visit: www.opera.org.au
Image: Shanul Sharma, Alexander Sefton and Richard Anderson in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of Satyagraha in Concert, conducted by Tahu Matheson – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Paul Selar