Monday, April 14, 2008

Glass Full : Gandhi Opera at the Met

The young man sitting next to me in row K of the Metropolitan Opera for the premiere of Satyagraha liked it much more after our chat at intermission. What helped my neighbor was to think of it not as a story, but rather as ritual re-enactment of episodes in M. K. Gandhi's discovery of the "strength of truth" (roughly satya + agraha in Sanskrit). 

My neighbor had nodded off several times during Act One. No wonder, since he didn't know anything about Gandhi's career or about the Bagavad-Gita. He was frustrated by the director's choice not to translate the words, except for bits and pieces projected on the set sometimes near the end of a piece. Naturally, he also expected something with a story.

Since first hearing the opera on record in 1987, I've thought of it as a religious work of art, easily my favorite Glass piece. Writing yesterday in the Boston Globe, critic Jeremy Eichler explains why:
Conceived and written in the late 1970s, it manages to maintain the early integrity of the composer's signature style while annexing the sumptuous vocal and instrumental textures of traditional opera. It is full of supple writing for solo voice, for small ensemble, and often for full chorus. In a sense, it represents an elusive way station in Glass's overarching journey, a moment of perfect equipoise between his past as an austere minimalist pioneer and his future as a neo-Romantic populist. He never again achieved this precise balance. ... Those open to a meditative listening experience that obeys its own laws of glacial pacing will find a visually rich presentation of a landmark Glass score [in the Met's new production], one that flows by with a moving and serene grandeur unique among his oeuvre.
Its religious text is 2000 years older than the events depicted on stage. I explained to my neighbor: It's as if someone wrote an opera about the SCLC in Alabama in 1963, but, rather than give Martin Luther King and Reverend Lowry and Bull Connor dialogue from their story, extracted all their words from the King James version of the Book of Acts. My explanation was lost on him: he's Muslim. Anyway, when bullies confront Gandhi, their text is from the Bagavad-gita, something like, "Ha ha! This I have gained today, this whim I'll satisfy. I am young and rich and strong. Who else can match himself with me?" The soprano who saves Gandhi sings something like, "The devilish folk... they have no other aim than to satisfy their pleasure, convinced that is all. So speak fools."

The opera's religious quality comes from the music even more than from the text. Glass's music has been used in movies to suggest desolation, despair, or anxiety (as his song "Facades," his score for the documentary Koyaanisqatsi and the commercial film The Hours), but in Satyagraha, it expresses serenity, resolve, and joy. Glass builds each movement over a repeating bass line, borrowing the technique from Bach, in itself an expression of eternity. The notes all sit comfortably in the ranges of the singers, and these singers projected with ease and warmth. Richard Croft as Gandhi invested repeated lines with vitality, and all the singers made variation in dynamics when there was no variation in the melody.

The middle scenes have pleasing fast-paced motion and slow dramatic build, as Glass builds variety by revoicing the harmony, mixing and matching different lines at the climax of a movement; but I've always been most partial to the last movement. It's the longest, I believe, and it accompanies the least action: a march of miners gathers adherents despite threats of violence, while Gandhi and others meditate on the way that Truth is reborn when there is trouble, generation after generation. The act begins with an off-stage chorus singing, a cappella, a pulsing "ba - ba - ba - ba" d minor chord that shifts to f minor and back. The orchestra takes up those two chords with upward arpeggios; two women sustain long notes over the same pair of chords and the same pulse; Gandhi eventually sings it, too. When he's alone on stage, several minutes later, the music shifts to a major chord (C major, I think) and he sings a C major scale, from E to E, in plain old quarter notes, many, many times, slightly out of sync with the arpeggios. Oldest trick in the book, switching from minor to major, but it works, and Croft's voice is like a balm.

Of course, I knew all this before I went to see it. The visual aspects of the production were striking, and very much in the spirit of the music and text. Here are some highlights:

It opens in silence, moments after the event in Gandhi's sojourn in South Africa that changed his life: He was literally kicked off of a train for refusing to give up (on account of his color) a seat that he had paid for lawfully. Gandhi picks himself up, shaken. He then opens a small book that he finds near his suitcase -- evidently a copy of the Bagavad-gita -- and begins to sing before the orchestra joins him.

Crowding the stage were characters dressed as descendants of Europeans in South Africa, all carrying newspapers, and their Indian lower class, all carrying baskets. As the song built, its text concerning impending battle between factions of a single family, giant (20 foot high) humanoid monsters rose up behind the respective camps, made of newspaper and baskets.

Divestment of clothing came to represent sacrifice to join the movement - so, everyone in cast and chorus took off their shoes at the end of the first scene, and later placed their coats and wraps on hangers that lifted the clothing to the ceiling fifty feet above the stage. (I enjoyed watching the chorus come out at intermission to claim their own shoes!)

During a turbulent instrumental interlude, a whole monster - movie cityscape with giant puppets gathered behind Gandhi to menace him, and disappeared as suddenly, all during the scene of Europeans bullying Gandhi. Another cool element of that scene: Shoe shine "boys" caring for every chorus man's shoes, bowing and scraping while the men sang their arrogance.  A very literal image, but effective: every chorus member and cast member comes forward to cast their hated government-issued identity cards into a hole in the stage floor, which Gandhi at last ignites, while the chorus sings triumphantly about the resolve to accept pain if it is a consequence of duing duty.

Finally, the semicircular wall of corrugated steel split in the final scene, revealing a projection of clouds on blue sky, while we see "Martin Luther King Jr." in his pulpit (seen from behind) as he gestures to an unseen crowd, while Gandhi sings "Whenever the law of righteousness withers away... then do I generate myself on earth... for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again."

Concluding his review in the New York SUN, critic Jay Nordinger asks,
Is Satyagraha really an opera? Or is it more like an oratorio or cantata, with a production around it? There is certainly a sense of ceremony about this work. It has an air of churchliness, dare I say. (Templeness?) And a cynic may find it culty and na├»ve, not to mention pretentious. But there is a less cynical, and better, view. .... We owe this to the minimalists, if nothing else: At a time when beauty in music was under attack — vilified as a bourgeois indulgence [i.e., during the hegemony of serialism in the art music and jazz music of the 60s and 70s] — they stood up for it.
After that uplifting performance (boy, did you ever leave the theatre humming the tunes!), I have to report being let down by Prokofiev's The Gambler. The scenery was promising, at first: a green felt curtain, and a stylized setting for a cramped apartment elongated way out of proportion, suggesting a wall built of cards. But a little more minimalism would have helped this one: too much variety is as stultifying as too little. I'll admit that I dozed off several times. Every time I awoke, the characters on stage were continuing to discuss the same basic thing: "I need money to pay a gambling debt." The second act was more interesting, as the protagonist bets repeatedly on red, to win money, to serve the girl he loves. The stage becomes a giant roulette, and a chorus sings and dances across it, but it all comes down to this: He wins a lot of money. He offers her the money. For reasons that have something to do with pride or integrity (why should she bother with those now?), the love interest rejects the money and him. Opera over.

That night, I saw the much-touted London production of Sunday in the Park with George, about which I've written often on my web site and on this blog. All I can add is a fresh appreciation for James Lapine's deft characterizations of people in just a few lines of dialogue, and the wonderful work of actors to make such minor characters seem totally real during their brief times on stage. (This is especially noticeable in the second Act, where most of these characters appear only for one song and the scene that follows.) The computer-generated background was cool, but not so much more cool than ingenious cutouts or the production in Washington that utilized giant easels and canvasses as scenery. The actors in the lead were endearing and real, energetic and playful. The piece was affecting as always, in the same ways as always... so I rather wish that I'd spent my precious two days in NYC sampling a couple of new productions on Broadway instead of The Gambler and Sunday. Oh well.

(Reflections on the Metropolitan Opera's premiere of SATYAGRAHA, composed by Philip Glass, who collaborated with Constance DeJong on text, adapted from the Hindu scripture The Bagavad - Gita. The production was designed and directed by Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, and others from London's theatre company IMPROBABLE. Also, brief comments on the Met's production of Prokofiev's THE GAMBLER, and Roundabout theatre's production of Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE)

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