Satyagraha at the MET

The piece is not a
music-drama, an enactment of a story by singers using musical means
to express their emotions. Instead of an impersonated text, the characters
enact scenes from Gandhiís early struggles to invent and apply his
philosophy of pacific resistance to tyranny while singing/chanting gnomic
phrases from the ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.

For another matter, vocal art is ñ how to put this? ñ not in the
forefront in this musical stage piece, though the duet performed by Maria
Zifchak and Ellie Dehn in Act III, evolving into an ensemble as Gandhi leads
his followers in a triumphant march for striking coal miners, is as gorgeous
a piece of sheer vocal sound as the Met has presented all season. Richard
Croft, who from his years as an early music tenor (renowned for his limpid
Handel) has learned how to fill a simple line with subtle emotion, playing
Gandhi made the feeling of enlightened, undramatic mystery both
accessible and moving ñ which I think is what the composer wished to
achieve (and failed to achieve, to my mind, in his Akhnaton). These
performances are not ìoperaticî except in the sense that they come from
ìcharactersî and sing without microphones, but they thrill the ear for
all that.

Philip Glassís ìoperaî is more of an oratorio, but not even that,
for the text does not pretend to tell any kind of stage-story. The
Gita texts are illustrated by symbolic dioramas of six scenes from
the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, plus, as prologue, the most famous scene
from the Gita itself, and mimed moments in the lives of three
contemporaries who influenced or were influenced by Gandhi: Leo Tolstoy,
Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. The scenes presented take place
in British South Africa before World War I.There Gandhi developed a
philosophy and a following for peaceful resistance to oppression before he
took this message home to India, whose liberation he was ultimately
instrumental in effecting.

In this extraordinary production by Phelim McDermott to designs by Julian
Crouch with lighting by Paule Constable the use of multimedia from modern and
ancient sources (puppets, shadows, processions, stilts, aerial stunts,
projections, moving projections), has been carefully calculated.
Movement and design exquisitely accompanied the musical and dramatic
presentation, which demonstrates in its cumulative power the effect of
synchronized musical, dramatic and stage structure into one concentrated act
of storytelling.

This marks a painful contrast, for example, to the Metís stagings of
Lucia and Peter Grimes earlier this season, where the
directors (unaccustomed to opera and unfamiliar with the works they were
handling) seemed perversely determined to defy and contradict the dramatic
intentions of the creators, to use their stage smarts to frustrate the
telling of the tales. Perhaps because of the difficulty Satyagraha
would have appealing to any traditional opera house audience if it were given
perverse or slapdash treatment, or perhaps just because the composer is alive
and present to protest, Satyagraha has been given a production with
a care and a thoughtfulness ñ a concern for the work ñ that the Met seems
unwilling to lavish upon more standard fare.

Newspapers, a frequent trope, represent an example of the sort of metaphor
the staging devised to place us in Gandhiís era: Cheap newspapers were a
major breakthrough of the nineteenth century, and with wire services to fill
them, there was now something like an immediate world audience for the first
time. Gandhiís revolution might well have fizzled without this avenue of
appeal to the ìgreat British sense of fair playî ñ a thing that did not
usually prevent the government from doing whatever it wanted. For the first
time in history, the whole world was watching and Gandhiís moral
force was in peopleís faces, not an ignorable event in some distant corner
of the planet.

Building on this point, newspapers serve screens on which to read
subtitles or through which to see shadow puppet shows. Newspapers are balled
up as weapons hurled at Gandhi by hostile crowds, and are laid out on stage
by busy followers representing, perhaps, the repetitive motions of the labor
force (in fields or in factories) who were Gandhiís audience and his
constituency ñ and the intended beneficiaries of his work.

Special congratulations are due to chorus master Donald Palumbo (the hero,
in fact, of the entire season) and to Dante Anzolini, who had the unenviable
job of leading the Met orchestra used to more variation than what they play
in Glassís slow-moving and repetitious score, and accomplished this with
great success.

The score itself builds upon the usual Glass arpeggios, the
repetitiousness that makes each intrusion a fascinating relief. In a Glass
score, melody, like text, has been discarded as an expressive tool ñ and I,
for one, deeply regret the fact that melody has ceased to speak to much of
the contemporary audience, or anyway to contemporary composers of opera.

What Glass has replaced these things with does not serve the traditional
purposes of opera, and so we must examine what purpose an ìoperaî now
has. He relies on rhythm, and he makes tremendous ñ sometimes excessive ñ
use of it, for instance to express the hieratically slow progress of the
peace movement. Then, there is a tremendously effective moment near the end
of Act I when the regular four-square rhythm we have grown used to abruptly
lurches into a syncopated beat to suggest the turbulence created by Gandhi in
his acquiescent society ñ a traditional trick, and I was grateful for the
hint of something comprehensible in Glassís method.

At the end of Act II, I was also much amused when Gandhiís followers
threw their identity cards into a pit and brought in a torch to set them on
fire. Glass, evidently unable to find a way of setting such a moment in his
personal stylebook, fell back on illustrating flames in a manner that would
have been familiar to Tchaikowsky (in The Maid of Orleans ) or Verdi
(Otello), never mind Wagner. Glass renounces expressiveness, but
when he finds he needs it, he has to go back to the classics to steal it. It
is like the very young couple next door sneering at your old-fashioned
notions of haute cuisine and then coming by to borrow a cup of
sugar. Refined, unhealthy ñ and necessary to bake an operatic cake.

The crowd in the (packed) house on April 14 seemed, many of them, new to
the labyrinthine Met. They were not sure where the rest rooms or cafÈ bars
were located when they all rushed for coffee at the intermissions. I (having
caffeinated before the performance) enjoyed a flute of champagne to mellow
out. The lines seemed unusually short. The house was filled, as it is on all
the best nights, with the buzz of conversation debating the performance ñ
from the old and puzzled to the young and disputatious. This may be further
evidence that Satyagraha does not appeal to, and on acquaintance
does not produce, the sort of excitement favored by the usual opera lover.
But that there is a passionate market for it cannot be doubted. Is that
market best served by luring it to the Met? Will they return for
opera-as-usual or will they insist on this standard of production, to the
point of downgrading star singing?

Satyagraha, by whatever fortunate combination of forces, under
whatever conjunction of stars, is a magnificent night at the opera.

John Yohalem

image_description=A scene from Act II of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” with Richard Croft as Gandhi. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
product_title=Philip Glass: Satyagraha
Metropolitan Opera. Performance of April 14.
product_by=M.K. Gandhi: Richard Croft; Miss Schlesen: Rachelle Durkin; Mrs. Naidoo: Ellie Dehn; Kasturbai Gandhi: Maria Zifchak; Mr. Kallenbach: Earle Patriarco: Parsi Rustomji: Alfred Walker; Mrs. Alexander: Mary Phillips; Prince Arjuna: Bradley Garvin; Lord Krishna: Richard Bernstein. Conducted by Dante Anzolini.
product_id=Above: A scene from Act II of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” with Richard Croft as Gandhi.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera