This was the latest in the live opera relays to be shown at the DCA in Dundee. And a most unusual opera it was. The outline of the opera was not very encouraging, rather intimidating in fact. How about this - an opera with no dialogue, just adaptations from the Bhagavad Gita, the hindu religious poem. All sung in Sanskrit and without subtitles!
Yet this was a most enjoyable evening. The opera is an early work by American composer Philip Glass and covers the experiences of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. It traces his transition from a European style lawyer to the dhoti dressed leader of a non-violent protest movement. It does this through seven tableaux, each representing an important part of Gandhi’s development.
Much of the attraction of the opera comes from Glass’s music, which is a powerful mix of vibrant, repetitive rhythms and some tender sequences. Glass’s repetitive minimalist music is perfect for this opera which features lots of hindu chants. The main singers were all terrific, with Richard Croft as Gandhi. At times the music and singing just soared in a pulsating crescendo, with the sopranos dominating.
What makes this production - a joint one with ENO - really impressive is the staging. The main raw materials for the set were corrugated iron and newsprint. Well probably not corrugated iron, but something which looks like the stuff. This was used to form the backdrop and changed to represent different urban scenes. The newsprint was everywhere - on the floor, held up by actors, hanging down from buildings and even crumpled up into balls. To augment the singers and chorus we had a puppetry group - the Skills Ensemble - to provide background action which helped to make sense of the different tableaux. This included giant puppets and a couple of acrobats on stilts. Everything was very bright and colourful.
Though there were no subtitles, every so often some text illuminating the situation would appear, sometimes flashed onto newspaper sheets, and other times on the background walls. So we were not completely in the dark. However the music, the singing, the set and the puppetry all combined to ensure that the audience was spellbound from first to last. Not an opera I would normally have gone to, but as part of the season ticket, I went and am very glad I did.