Why does it begin?: Satyagraha at ENO
English National Opera
Dress Circle Slips B8, £20 (Secret Seat)
16 February 2018
I fucking hate Philip Glass’s operas. I know this to be true. But I also know that some serious people really rate them, and so, apparently, I keep on going, hoping each time that this will be the one where I get it. Each time, just as every time before, I fucking hate it.
Satyagraha seems to me a parody of what people who’ve never been to an opera worry opera will be like. It’s extremely long; nothing happens; and it’s all in a language I don’t understand (Et tu, ENO). Director Phelim McDermott seems to hammer the last coffin nail home by eschewing ENO’s perfectly good surtitle display and projecting the translation on the back of the set, such that from my plush Secret Seat seat I could read about 60% of the words. Perhaps I should be grateful: trying to decipher what the rest of the text might be provided some alleviation from the music’s tedium, at least for the first two hours.
Such tedium. This is obviously the point of Glass, as it seems to characterize all his music, but I’ve failed again to see what’s good about it and how it is anything other than deeply, painfully boring. I had much – much – opportunity to cast my mind to the music of Glass’s so-called fellow minimalists, where minor variations lead to ever evolving, thrillingly generative music, or where wildly abrupt changes to an established motor erupt magnificently, like throwing open the curtains or being pushed out of a train. Doesn’t Glass take the piss, though? To repeat the same two bars for ten minutes with no variation, and then have a narrow harmonic change with a minor instrumental variation and keep that the same for ten minutes, and then to do the same thing at the same rhythmic pulse for three hours? Why does it stop? Why does it begin?
Even if I liked the music, which I definitely don’t, I think I might disdain it anyway on the grounds of cruelty to musicians. Presumably there are some among the performers who, like many of my fellow audience members, mysteriously dig this stuff. But what if you didn’t? What does it do to your brain to play the same two notes in the same rhythm for half an hour? What does it do to your voice to repeat the same brutally high passage over and over again? I should say that, if they were in agony, they mostly didn’t let on. Conductor Karen Kamensek kept the big metronome ticking throughout and orchestra, chorus and soloists all performed tirelessly and admirably. Though I get upset when I think about the total number of hours’ rehearsal that represents.
McDermott’s production kept me out of the deepest level of mind-numbed agony for the first two acts. I enjoyed all the stuff with puppets, though I didn’t understand it, or anything else, and I wished we could have had a reprise of the big ghoulish city people from Act II. Instead, in Act III McDermott left us more or less unprotected against the full vanquishing power of Glass’s music, leaving me by the end a hollowed heap of bedevilled wretchedness, exasperated as only Glass’s music can make me. And yet, below me in the Stalls a standing ovation, around me in the Dress Circle as well. What is the secret? How will I ever understand?
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