Philip Glass' Satyagraha is nearly thirty years old, and it's proving to be one of his most durable creations. Metropolitan Opera director Peter Gelb calls it Glass' greatest opera, a masterpiece, and based on the impact it makes in the Met's vibrant new production, co-produced with the English National Opera, it's hard to disagree. Satyagraha is a Sanskrit word meaning "truth force," or "strength through truth," which Gandhi coined while living in South Africa between 1893 and 1914, working for equality for the country"s Indian population. The philosophy of non-violent resistance that Gandhi and his followers practiced became the model for many of the most successful liberation movements of the twentieth century. The opera focuses on six pivotal events in Gandhi"s life during that period, preceded by a scene from Hindu mythology. The scenes are not arranged chronologically, and the opera's Sanskrit text, taken from the Bhagavad Gita by Constance de Jong, consists of philosophical reflections rather than dialogue, so the opera obviously doesn't conform to conventional narrative structure. Each carefully constructed scene makes sense as a dramatic unit, though, and the effect of the whole is powerful.
In this production, director Phelim McDermott and associate director and designer Julian Crouch tweak or forego some of Glass' original stage directions, and the success of their alternate vision is a testimony to the opera's durability -- this is a work that can stand up to a variety of interpretations. Most significantly, they've ignored Glass' original conceit that the events of the opera transpire in a single day, from dawn until night. This production begins in darkness and ends with a bright blue sky. It's a political statement and an optimistic assessment of the world, given the fact that Gandhi's vision of peace is so far from being realized, but it's all the more poignant because it points to the fact that his message is no less needed today than it was a century ago.
The stage design is very much integrated with the opera's concern for the liberation of the poor. The primary materials of the set are corrugated iron and newspaper. Instead of using flashy stage effects, the directors have many of the opera's most memorable moments created by Skills Ensemble, a troupe of actors, puppeteers and acrobats who use newspaper, straw baskets and clear tape to construct settings as well as gigantic animals and human figures.
Each of the three acts is presided over by a figure who inspired or was inspired by Gandhi's philosophy -- Tolstoy in the first act, Rabindranath Tagore in the second, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the third. For most of the opera, the back of the stage is lined with panels of corrugated iron, creating an atmosphere of poverty and virtual imprisonment, in which Gandhi and his followers work out their strategies of liberation. In the final act, we see prophetic images of the American civil rights movement, with police in riot gear savagely beating peaceful protesters, and Gandhi's followers being arrested and led away. The iron panels drift away, revealing an expansive bank of roiling gray clouds. Gandhi remains onstage in front of a huge pillar at the top of which King, his back to the audience, is preaching to unseen crowds. Accompanied by some of Glass' most serene and ethereal music, Gandhi goes up to the pillar and touches it, as if in benediction. The sky turns to brilliant blue and the clouds begin to dissipate -- it's a genuinely breathtaking moment. It's spoiled a little when an image of Gandhi's followers is projected onto the sky, presumably listening to King, (a detail that actually is in the libretto), but mercifully it doesn't last long. In spite of that misstep, the final moments of the opera are a satisfying resolution of the struggles that preceded them.
The most frequent complaint about Glass' music is that it's too repetitive, and on a superficial level it can sound like the same thing over and over. On closer listening, though, Glass is in fact continually shifting the details of orchestration, meter, and dynamics so that the music is in a constant state of flux, giving it a larger architectural complexity. When allied with the apparent sameness of the surface, this complexity creates a synthesis of principles analogous to satyagraha's combination of the principles of truth and strength. This deep structural connection between Glass' music and the opera's theme makes the subject the perfect vehicle for the composer's aesthetic vision, and is one of the elements that gives the opera its emotional impact and sense of integrity.
One of the wonders of Glass' score is the degree of expressiveness he is able to evoke through the use of repeated patterns and very simple gestures. The twenty-minute opening scene is accompanied entirely by the repetitions of a four-chord progression, but the emotional range of the scene is huge, from the quiet serenity that opens and closes it to the furious raging of battling armies at its climax. Another example of the expressive depth of Glass' apparent simplicity is Kasturbai's solo at the beginning of the third act. It consists of exactly two pitches, a whole step apart, but in the composer's rhythmically shifting text setting and poignant harmonies, it sounds like a soaring aria. Glass may be working within the restraints of a narrowed set of musical parameters and an unconventional narrative structure, but with Satyagraha, he has created an opera with the breadth of feeling, dramatic power, and emotional resonance to merit a place in the standard repertoire.
The difficulty of its music is a serious obstacle to it ever becoming a repertory work, however. Satyagraha is Glass' first "real" opera, coming after Einstein on the Beach, which he had written for his own devoted (and small) ensemble of new music specialists, and the demands on the orchestra and chorus are staggering. It's not a question of technical difficulty, because in small increments, the music isn't generally hard, but it requires an almost superhuman level of sustained concentration that most orchestras and choruses aren't used to. It's the rhythmic element that's the killer -- its constantly changing meters of nearly-but-not-quite identical patterns are fiendishly difficult to keep track of. For the chorus, which has an unusually large role in this opera, there's the added element of having it memorized, as well singing in a difficult language that has no relationship to any European language. Much credit goes to Chorus Master Donald Palumbo for his thorough preparation; the chorus sang with crispness and intensity, and with careful attention to details of dynamics. At the April 14 performance, in the first scene of the second act, the men's treacherous laughing chorus threatened to teeter out of control, but a few brave souls hung tight and soon everyone was back on course. Dante Anzolini, making his Met debut in this production, led the orchestra of strings and winds in a luminous performance; he was absolutely clear in his beat, but he also had the flexibility to let the music breathe. His tempos in the slow sections tended to be especially broad, all to good effect. The last act, particularly, in which all the stage action is enacted in slow motion, benefited from his expansive approach; there were transcendent stretches where time felt suspended.
Except for the role of Gandhi, this is not a showpiece opera for singers, so it was not a star-packed production. Tenor Richard Croft was a fully persuasive as Gandhi; he could both command attention with the kind of charisma Gandhi was known for, and blend seamlessly into the crowd of workers. He sang with admirable purity and intensity, and with a burnished warmth that made the character appealing. Other standouts included baritone Earle Patriarco as an especially resonant and stalwart Mr. Kallenbach, and soprano Rachel Durkin as Miss Schlesen. The last act duet with mezzo Maria Zifchak as Kasturbai, Gandhi's wife, and soprano Ellie Dehn as Mrs. Naidoo, was radiant, one of the highlights of the evening.
Even if you're not in New York, there's a chance to hear a performance. Satyagraha will be aired on the Met's Saturday broadcast this week at 1:30.