Phillip Glass’ Satyagraha at the Met

To begin at the ending: the last thirty minutes of Satyagraha, with Gandhi alone on stage intoning the same fiver note pattern, seemed interminable. Maybe I had somewhere else to be, maybe I was worried the pizza place would close before heading off to the Southern Theater but it went on and on and on and on and on.

To begin at the beginning: Satyagraha has music by Phillip Glass and a libretto in Sanskrit from the Bhavaghad Gita adapted by Constance DeJong. The opera is sung in Sanskrit with minimal use of the English language titles. Satyagraha (great struggle)  tells of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s early life in South Africa. His years there as a barrister exposed him to the  racism and discrimination he spent the rest of his life trying to eradicate. A worthy subject, the Mahatma (great soul) for an opera.

Phillip Glass’s score comes from the late 70s, the height of his ‘bad boy of music period.’ The minimalist score, with its repetitions, and its engine-driving strings (Glass’ answer to Verdi’s  oom-pa-pah) seem anachronistic today. It’s good that people have stopped being so angry or defensive at Glass’s music and that we can settle in to enjoy its many beauties and cumulative effect.

To begin at the beginning: Gandhi is pitched off a train in South Africa-his solo introduction was beautiful and the later trio with Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna (Bradley Garvin and Richard Bernstein) was ravishing. I was reminded of medieval music, of Perotin, though the older composer’s tonality sounds much more radical today than Glass’s graceful writing. I found the voices presented with complete clarity throughout the work. Glass wanted everything to be heard-and savored. The sacred texts of the Bhagavad Gita are clearly important to him. The text precluded an easy interaction among the characters. There’s nothing in the way of conversation. There is protest and worship, and there’s a spirited rescue of Gandhi from an angry mob by a proper Edwardian lady, Mrs. Alexander (Mary Phillips).

Some knowledge of Gandhi’s back story might have helped fleshing out Mr. Kallenbach and Miss Niesen  They seemed little reason to be there, a shame because its always a pleasure to encounter baritone Kim Josephson.

Richard Croft sang the title role. And sing he did, every bit the sensitive musician with a beautiful Mozartean voice. There are long stretches where Gandhi is onstage with nothing to sing. It’s exhausting to be onstage, and Croft sang with tonal beauty and reacted with simple dignity and sincerity.

There are over one hundred stars in this performance: the members of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Ensemble and intonation were secure and the sheer sound, in small ensemble or all together was ravishing. The analogy to sacred music is not far off-everything on stage was sung with reverence and care, yet the overall effect was far from stodgy. A vibrant story was told-with great help from England’s Skills Ensemble. The Indian Gods incarnated as birds, elephants, dragons roamed the stage to the delight of the audience, yet Satyagraha never became a circus act. Director and designer Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch made good use of the Met’s stage and gave us all the visual variety the music might lack for some listeners.

Phillip Glass was present. His bow was met with roof blowing applause and cheers. The conductor, Dante Anzolini, cast and production team were all cheered to the walls after a long afternoon that only dragged toward the end. Would I see Satyagraha again? Yes. Again and again.

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