Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music
November 1, 2018

“Whenever there is a decline of righteousness, and a rise of unrighteousness, then I manifest Myself again. For the protection of good and the destruction of evil doers, for the sake of establishing righteousness, I come into being from age to age.” The words are those of the God Krishna that underpin the meditative conclusion of Satyagraha. Presented here in a brilliantly conceived Swedish fusion of singing and circus, Philip Glass’s 1980 opera has never felt more timely.

Leif Aruhn-Solén as Gandhi in Satyagraha. Photo © Stephanie Berger

The conceit is simple: both circus and opera are all about taking risk. So too was satyagraha, Gandhi’s principal of passive political resistance, born in British-controlled South Africa around 1910 and later deployed in the Indian independence movement. To act, or not to act? It’s a choice we all have, and Gandhi’s genius – by, for example, the simple burning of a passport – was in showing how laws and lawmakers can be defeated simply by overwhelming an overloaded bureaucracy or blowing out an under-resourced penal system.

Glass’s opera takes key elements of the man and his methods and holds them up so that we can examine them from different angles and in different lights. By deliberately eschewing a conventional chronology, he ensures that we read his opera not as a story – though there is plenty of story in there – but as a philosophical discourse.

Sarah Lett in Satyagraha. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Tilde Bjöfors’ thrilling production for Swedish opera company Folkoperan neatly reduces Glass’s orchestra down to 21 and the chorus down to eight, while adding in five artists from his circus company, Cirkus Cirkör. When you think about it, Gandhi as a tightrope walker, or straddling a seesaw seems obvious, but as the physical trickery is intimately embedded in the whole rather than just an add on, the theatrical impact goes well beyond “oh, yes, that’s clever.” This is exhilarating, uplifting and magical theatre, above and beyond what we’ve come to expect from genre fusion pieces. It helps that his singers are all physically accomplished and clearly game for a challenge, but Dan Potra’s simple, yet clever, set, neatly incorporating the orchestra, along with Patrik Bogårdh’s lighting and occasional video projections by Visual Relief play their part as well, binding the whole into a tightly integrated piece of theatre.

The opera opens with the sound of a train and a bowler-hatted Gandhi (Potra’s costumes, also splendid) flying in to land atop a multi-purpose fulcrum that suggests the complicated political balancing act ahead. This object goes on to serve many purposes before ending up as a giant charkha, or Indian spinning wheel (Gandhi span his own thread throughout his life, his various devices now carefully preserved as moving tributes to a life of simplicity). The gods Arjuna and Krishna (Oscar Karlsson and Magnus Bjøru, both superb athletes) proceed to battle it out on a seesaw, their bodies flying higher and higher, and drawing audible gasps from the crowd.

Alexander Weibel Weibel and Karolina Blixt in Satyagraha. Photo © Stephanie Berger

From here on, the visual imagery comes thick and fast. An acrobat (the remarkably versatile Sarah Lett) emerges feet first from a haystack of twine to add her own twist to the faithful satyaghahis playful weaving. A violinist balances on a giant ball of thread. Gandhi has a physical double (the charismatic Alexander Weibel Weibel), who literally walks the tightrope as he is pelted with balls of crumpled newspaper (though the trick at the end of Act Two seemed to go wrong on opening night). Mrs. Alexander, the local police chief’s wife who rescues Gandhi from a mob, becomes a giantess, rising up 20 feet in her long black Edwardian skirts.

Thanks to projected scene synopses and translations of the text, the storytelling is admirably clear, far more so than in previous productions I have seen. Of course, Glass and his librettist Constance DeJong famously set the libretto – entirely taken from the Bhagavad Gita – in Sanskrit, intending it to be unintelligible to the audience and thus throwing the focus off of any narrative thread. But by mirroring the action with abstract elements of circus, somehow the staging manages to convey both a historical reality and a penetrative depth that reaches beyond either words or action.

Karolina Blixt, Johan Schinkler and Hanna Fritzson in Satyagraha. Photo © Stephanie Berger

In its reduced format, Glass’s score loses some of the impact of the original cast recording, but gains in clarity of musical lines and delicacy of intent, especially in the disciplined hands of Australian conductor Matthew Wood (former Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra), who paces everything perfectly and shapes the long, slowly changing vocal lines with flare and imagination. The chorus work is clear, though it would benefit from being doubled, and the six principals are uniformly excellent.

Leif Aruhn-Solén, a singer and actor of great presence, makes a captivating (and visually remarkably convincing) Mahatma Gandhi, his clean, clear tenor possessing an angelic upper range. He’s supported by Lars Johansson Brissman as a firm, authoritative Arjuna and the superb bass Johan Schinkler as both Krishna and Parsi Rustomji (the Indian-South African philanthropist and businessman whose early sponsorship was a great support to Gandhi). The three women are led by the rich contralto of Karolina Blixt as both Gandhi’s beloved Kasturbai and Mrs. Alexander, while Lisa Carlioth and Hanna Fritzson provide solid support as the less clearly defined characters of Miss Schlessen (Gandhi’s secretary) and Mrs. Naidoo (one of his first devotees).

A fabulous and inventive evening of music theatre then, and one which Australian festival directors should have an eye on. Not only is Satyagraha a fine opera, finely delivered, it is a beacon of light in dark times. After all, it was Mahatma Gandhi who said: “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”


Satyagraha is at BAM as part of the White Light Festival until November 4

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine