Satyagraha is a mighty odd duck to encounter if you are seeking a traditional opera-going experience or anything like it. 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 Gandhi’s 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 – how to put this? – not foregrounded 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 – which I think is what the composer wished to achieve (and failed to achieve, to my mind, in his Akhnaton). These performances are not “operatic” except in the sense that they come from “characters” and sing without microphones, but they thrill the ear for all that.
Philip Glass’s “opera” 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 accompany 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 Met’s 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 – a concern for the work – that the Met seems unwilling to lavish upon more standard fare.
Newspapers, a frequent trope, represent the sort of metaphor the staging plays with. Gandhi’s revolution might well have fizzled without this avenue of appeal to the “great British sense of fair play” – 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 Gandhi’s moral force was in people’s 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 Gandhi’s audience and his constituency – 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 Glass’s 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 – 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 “opera” now has. He relies on rhythm, and he makes tremendous – sometimes excessive – 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 – a traditional trick, and I was grateful for the hint of something comprehensible in Glass’s method.
At the end of Act II, I was also much amused when Gandhi’s 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 – 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 café 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 – 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. 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.