Act II of Satyagraha
Photo : Ken Howard/Met 2008
I feel I shouldn’t say anything negative about Philip Glass’ Satyagraha
that wrapped up its run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last night. Simply put, this is exactly the kind of opera repertoire I’d like to see more often, so if you want to reinforce good behavior the best thing to do is praise it. So let me start there. It’s really a beautiful opera. Everybody wants to call the music “hypnotic” or “mesmerizing” which frankly is garbage. It’s no more “hypnotic” than Wagner is. Saying that Glass’ music is “mesmerizing” is basically trying to apologize for the fact that it’s repetitive. It is repetitive – get over it. It’s also popular (still) to debate Glass’ overall importance or significance as a composer. But I can think of no composer of art music today whose work would be so immediately recognizable to a lay ear without foreknowledge of the particular piece in question. After several hundred years of music history, that is a decidedly rare accomplishment. Like his work or not – I wager it’s going to be remembered.
Thursday’s final performance of Satyagraha
also benefited from the only appearance in the run from Alan Oke as Gandhi. Oke is the British tenor who preformed the role in this production’s original outing with the English National Opera last year. Although Richard Croft sounded great on the radio throughout the run, I was glad to see Oke who carried the evening with his magnificent performance. The whole cast was exemplary as would be expected here in New York, though I was particularly fond of Rachelle Durkin as Miss Schlesen. The production is filled with numerous memorable images including a sky full of hanging lanterns and monstrous puppets waging war with one another. The stage business throughout milks a rather smart and often effective newspaper motif with sheets acting at times as projection screens, scenery or the stuff that puppets are made of. All of this dreamed up by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch and their Improbable theater group. Glass himself showed up at the end, as he had in earlier performances, to a huge hero’s welcome from the audience. Good for him, he well deserves it.
But, to tell the truth, as much as I want to encourage good behavior, in a perfect world where performances of operas like Satyagraha
would be much more common, I’d be less worried to ask why everyone’s sights were set so low here. I didn’t care for this production anywhere near as much as the Achim Freyer staging
filmed for Stuttgart Opera in 1983 and currently available on DVD. Freyer seems unafraid of Glass’ concept and lack of narrative structure creating scenes that often have little to do with any action described and instead focusing on the philosophical concepts that underpin them. Phelim and Crouch take a very literal interpretation of the work right down to period costumes and the like. They do everything they can to emphasize the narrative elements of the piece. Even the lack of opera titles reinforces this effect. Since the Sanskrit text is essentially philosophical tracts from the Bhagavad Gita, without titles, it appears the cast members are actually communicating to one another with their own words, which is not exactly the case. Some of the ideological thrust of the work is lost among the late Victorian falderall. The set itself is an enclosed semi-circular wall of rusty corrugated steel. It’s been a big season for new productions featuring walls
at the Met and again we are besieged by people popping in and out of various windows in the wall throughout the performance.
Musically there was a little left to be desired as well.
Dante Anzolini led the Met Orchestra through a performance that was all smooth rounded edges and soft landings. Transitions between segments are made with ease and contrasting elements are played down. While a completely legitimate approach, I found it rather timid in a work with as many jarring elements as lyrical ones. Still, these are all minor complaints in my mind. This staging of Satyagraha
is a major accomplishment long overdue in this specific corner of the opera world. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning of things to come.
Labels: Met opera reviews 07/08, Out of Town