OperaMark RudioThe Met

Satyagraha from the Met

OperaMark RudioThe Met
The Metropolitan Opera's current revival of Philip Glass' Satyagraha was broadcast around the world on Saturday in their latest HD broadcast and if there's a more perfect opera for the relatively new medium I can't think of what it could be. The title is a Sanskrit word, roughly translating into "insistence on truth," or "truth force," and its seven scenes depict moments in the life of Mohandas Ghandi when he was developing his political/social philosophy in South Africa before returning to India. There isn't a "real" libretto- the words are passages from the Bhagavad Gita, more or less meant to provide a context to what's being portrayed onstage. Supertitles were kept to a minimum, used only to repeat the words shown sparingly on the stage's corrugated iron backdrop- again, mostly for context. There isn't really a plot- it's more a series of moving tableaux vivants and mise-en-scènes of a kind, based on incidents in Ghandi's life strung together for cumulative impact rather than narrative- and yet a narrative of "Satyagraha" unfolds throughout the almost four hour show (there are two intermissions) in an almost Aristotelian way as the final scene of the opera has Ghandi alone onstage against a backdrop of an actor miming Martin Luther King giving a speech. The visual power of this becomes a sort of meta-historical visual representation, as only a blind person could not notice that the tall, lean actor portraying King bears more than a striking physical resemblance to President Obama, even from behind.

Musically it suceeded on every level. Conductor Dante Anzolini led the orchestra through the complex and difficult score, creating a mesmerizing aural experience. The singers were somewhat amazing and I include the chorus in the compliment: the challenge of singing Glass's seemingly endless repeats is one thing- to perform it in Sanskrit is another thing altogether, and when you add in the additional theatrical component it's stunning what's being accomplished onstage by these performers. Vocally and visually, Richard Croft's Ghandi was a compelling presence all afternoon. Rachelle Durkin, who portrayed Ghandi's secretary, Miss Schlesen had an especially difficult assignment and handled it well; Maria Zifchak, as Ghandi's wife, had superb moments during the ensembles. Both Alfred Walker as Parsi Rustomji and Kim Josephson as Mr. Kallenbach were individually strong as Ghandi's colleagues. The scene where the chorus mocks Ghandi before attacking him was a triumph in its own right for everyone onstage.

But as good as the singing and performing were, the production really works because of the vision of its creators- director Phelim McDermott and associate director/designer Julian Crouch, the same team who created Shockheaded Peter. This team, along with the extraordinary Skills Ensemble, who are really as much a part of the cast as the chorus and singers, create scene after scene of compelling imagery and movement onstage that's as hypnotic to watch as Glass' score is to hear. It's really opera as it should be- a work of art with beautifully balanced dramatic and musical elements forming a single cohesive experience and in this case, a brilliant one.

Kudos to the Met and Peter Gelb not only for staging it in the first place, but for including it in the Met's broadcast schedule.