The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Dante Anzolini, Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, Richard Croft, Rachelle Durkin, Molly Fillmore, Maria Zifchak, Mary Phillips, Kim Josephson, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Alfred Walker
The Met: Live in HD - November 19, 2011
It’s taken a long time for Philip Glass to find acceptance in his home city of New York, his success and popularity as a living modern composer undoubtedly regarded with some suspicion by music critics, as well as his ability to blur the lines between classical and modern music through the writing of numerous film scores and symphonies based on David Bowie albums. Mainly however, it has to be admitted, the criticism has been principally on a failure to grasp the value of his minimalist approach to music that consists of long sections of repetitive rhythms with slowly changing parts, music that seems to be more mathematical in its structure and precision than relating in any meaningful way to human emotion or expression. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s one that a serious consideration of Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha very strongly refutes, and with this production at the Metropolitan Opera, it seems as if recognition for the brilliance of the work – one of the greatest opera works of the late 20th century – and for Philip Glass has finally been achieved.
The Met have of course been more receptive towards Philip Glass than the music critics, with his first opera Einstein on the Beach – an abstract avant-garde theatrical project that is undoubtedly one of the composer’s more difficult works – performed there in 1976. It was the Met who also commissioned Glass to write The Voyage (1990), an opera to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, which, if it approached the subject from a typically oblique angle, was however rather more conventional in its musical form. Of all Philip Glass’ opera works, Saytagraha remains one of the most interesting, shaped as it is by period of its writing with Glass still in minimalist mode but moving towards a more conventional use of classical orchestra instrumentation. Forced by necessity of the size of the orchestra pit of the commissioning house in Rotterdam,Satyagraha is distinctive also for making use only of strings and woodwind instruments, with no percussion or brass, and some supplemental electronic organ to hold the rolling sequences of rhythms.
There is however one more vital component to the sound and the score for Satyagraha that doesn’t require space in the orchestra pit, and that is the composer’s remarkable and unconventional use of the voice in the opera. Apart from the ensemble arrangements for duos, quartets, sextets and choir, what is significant and unconventional about how the voice is implemented in Satyagraha, is that it the libretto is sung in Sanskrit, the words broken down into syllables that give additional force, rhythm and another layer of instrumentation on top of the orchestration. The choice of Sanskrit is, of course, not random, but inextricably tied into the purpose, the themes and the expression of the subject of the opera, which deals with Mahatma Gandhi, specifically his early years in South Africa where he first formulated his principles of non-violence and civil disobedience working as a lawyer for the immigrant Indian population there.
The entire libretto of Satyagraha, written and arranged by Glass and Constance De Jong, is drawn from an ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavada Gita, and what is highly unusual about its use is not just that it’s sung in Sanskrit, but that this sacred text replaces any kind of conventional narrative spoken by the principal characters. Gandhi would have meditated on the Bhagavada Gita, and rather than use any external means of expression through the libretto for the actions of Gandhi and his supporters during this period in their following the path of truth (the meaning of the word “satyagraha” is roughly “truth force”), Glass chooses to have his characters look inward as a means of dealing with the increasing violence, prejudice and injustice enacted by the European South Africans against the blacks and Indian immigrants. Used in this way, the rhythmic intoning of the verses of the Bhagavada Gita are attuned Janacek-style to the tone and inflections of the voice with a mantra that seems to bear the sacred voice of truth. Working in conjunction with the barest outline of the setting of the real-life events, the words of the libretto and their delivery combine to create a near-religious purity of expression that has all the sincerity, conviction and spirituality of a Handel oratorio.
It starts as one voice, initially Gandhi alone (sung well in this production by Richard Croft), who has just arrived in South Africa as a young lawyer, and has immediately been put off the train for failing to give up his seat to a white man. In a moment of silence before the music and singing commences, he looks at his suitcase lying in the dust as if trying to decide whether to just give up and go home. Instead he turns his thoughts inward, finding the determination to go take up the struggle in the Bhagavada Gita’s description of the great conflict between the Kuruvas and the Pandavas. That voice is taken up by others as the opera progresses, his secretary Miss Schlesen, Kasturbai and Mrs Naidoo, culminating in an extraordinary sextet by all the principals through the New Castle March of Act III, each of them finding truth in the words and the strength to stand up to the injustice of the South African government’s racially discriminatory laws. There are few real dramatic reconstructions, not one word written that attempts to describe the narrative playing out of events or the interaction between the characters. The characters for the most part face the audience and express the truth as it is written in the Bhagavada Gita, and find their strength and unity through this.
That’s very difficult to get across on the stage, particularly as the ancient Sanskrit text is not translated into English surtitles for the audience, but the opera is only difficult if the audience is expecting a conventional narrative. Words, and attempts to define or interpret their meaning, would just get in the way here. The meaning should come through the intoning and recital of the vocal arrangements themselves, driven forcefully with the accompaniment of the orchestra. It helps however if there is something visually interesting and relevant to focus on in the place of dramatic action. That might not have been there in previous very rare productions of the opera (the Stuttgart production of Satyagraha by Achim Freyer, currently the only version available on DVD), that perhaps haven’t been able to bring the meaning across quite as well as it’s done here. Directed by Phelim McDermott, with the set designs by Julian Crouch and the Improvisational Puppetry of their Improbable theatrical company’s skills ensemble, this production manages to find a balance between the stylised setting of the events in Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 and 1913, the words of the libretto – some of which are projected in English onto the set designs – and the wider context of the opera and the meaning of satyagraha, past, present and future (in Tolstoy, Tagore and King).
I first saw this production of Satyagraha when it premiered in London at the English National Opera in 2007 (and again when it was revived in 2010), and even then it was clear how those subjects and the broader meaning of Gandhi’s message in the opera were still relevant and successfully put across by the inventive but unfussy production that combined spectacle with meaning. That relevance is perhaps even more pronounced at the present time, with the power of non-violence and peaceful demonstration evident in upheavals in the Arab world, but also in events closer to home at St Paul’s in London and, not so far away from the Metropolitan Opera itself, contemporaneously on Wall Street. The timing seems fortuitous, resulting in deserved recognition belatedly given to Satyagraha and Philip Glass in standing ovations at the Met global broadcast around the world in HD-Live, but the truths expressed in the opera itself have always been there, only needing the means to spread the word and find an audience who will be receptive to it. It’s gratifying to see then that the same global communications technology that played such a vital part in the Arab revolutions as a new Indian Opinion could, albeit in a much less important way, help gain wider appreciation for this particular work, but – who knows? – some might even find deeper inspiration from the truths expressed in it.