Review: Philip Glass - Satyagraha, the Metropolitan Opera, 2011

The revival of the Phelim McDermott/Julian Crouch production of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha by the Metropolitan Opera was filmed for their 2011 HD season.  This phenomenal interpretation translates well to the big screen and is a remarkable theatrical experience.

Sung in Sanskrit to a libretto adapted from the Bhagavad Gita by Constance DeJong and Philip Glass, the opera is in three acts, each referencing a major cultural figure in it’s title.  The first act being Leo Tolstoy, the second Rabindranath Tagore and the third pointing to Gandhi's future with Martin Luther King Jnr. 

In the broadcast the subtitles were presented at a minimum, allowing the viewer to concentrate on the large expanses of music that expresses much of what the sparse libretto eschews.  The libretto itself is based on passages from the Bhagavad Gita rather than narrative and action, giving the work an air of ritualistic pageant drama, not unlike the medieval mystery plays.  It is less of a biographical enactment of Gandhi’s early life in South Africa and more of symbolic tableaux combining myth with reality.

The use of larger than life puppets by the Skills Ensemble provided much colour and movement in what could be, in the hands of a less talented directing team, rather static and dull.  The theme was about using construction materials and the set, by Julian Crouch was largely made up from corrugated iron, newspaper and packing tape and the use of these were reflected in the puppetry design.

What once looked like a pile of newspapers on the floor subtly turned into moving crocodiles and holy images of Deities.  The Skills Ensemble were brilliant, at once impersonating the aforementioned historical figures, manipulating giant puppets, changing or becoming scenery and generally peopling the stage.

There were some particularly impressive scenes, for me in particular Act 1 scene 1, 'On the Kuru Field of Justice', Act 2 scenes 2 and 3, 'Indian Opinion' and 'Protest' and the first part of Act 3.  

In 'On the Kuru Fields of Justice' we were treated to a mythical battle between the Gods Arjuna and Krishna.  Lord Krishna as played by Richard Bernstein was bathed in ethereal blue light and his reappearance dressed in silver/blue armour at his defeat of Prince Arjuna was breathtaking.  The appearance of Ganesh at his side was equally as beautiful.

‘Indian Opinion’ gave us beautifully projected titles, falling newspapers and it all worked incredibly well.  ‘Protest’ was beautiful in its use of fire while Gandhi’s followers burned their papers in a pit.  

The beginning of Act 3 was beautiful in the use of sellotape as a scenic device, morphing into some kind of weird humanoid, but what surprised me about this scene was the beginning, the pure concentration of the Skills Ensemble here was inspirational, moving slowly from one side of the stage to the other with roles of sellotape at various heights, constructing a wall to isolate Gandhi from his followers, it was exceptional.  Every other scene was impressive in it's own way but for me, these were the true standouts.

The latter half of the final act was dominated visually by the image of Martin Luther King Jnr orating in slow motion, more or less in silhouette against a blue backdrop.  I could not help but wonder about the possibly deliberate intention of this more than passing resemblance to Barak Obama.

The role of Gandhi himself is somewhat of an enigma.  Onstage for pretty much all of the opera, he dominates proceedings, but does not necessarily sing in every scene.  Richard Croft, reprising his role from the 2008 production proved himself up to the challenge, both physically and vocally.  His bright, clear tenor ringing out with an effortless line that is so essential for Glass' music.  From the close-up camera work in the HD broadcast it was clear that Croft inhabited the character and his ovation at the end well deserved.

Rachelle Durkin in the role of Gandhi's secretary, Miss Schlesen, gave an involved performance, her bright soprano only showing signs of slight strain in the long sustained high notes written for her in the 'Indian Opinion' scene.  Durkin consistently amazes me with each role I see her in, this in particular as it is a long way away from her usual Bel Canto/Mozartean outings. 

All of the principals in this production provided seemless ensemble work and their harmonies were exquisite.  Maria Zifchak as Kasturbai, Molly Fillmore as Mrs. Naidoo and Kim Josephson as Mr. Kallenbach provided Croft's Gandhi with the requisite spiritual strength in their histrionics and vocal support in their deliveries.  They made the work soar as it should, their intricate vocal inter-weavings perfectly on pitch.

The was no weak link in this cast and Mary Phillips as Mrs. Alexander, Richard Bernstein as Lord Krishna, Alfred Walker as Parsi Rustomji and Bradley Garvin as Prince Arjuna were sympathetic, beautifully sung minor roles, though I would have liked a bit more vocal force to Ms Phillips’ protection of Gandhi in the 'Confrontation and Rescue' scene of Act 2.

Full marks go to the Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera for their contribution.  Directed by Donald Palumbo they rose to the challenge of Glass' perilously difficult music brilliantly, not an easy feat when singing in a language completely unfamiliar like Sanskrit.

Satyagraha is very familiar to me from the only recording in the catalogue, which is exceptional in it’s own way.  I have to say that the Met's production was musically more vital and in many ways surpasses the CBS recording.  This is due in part because of the superior singing, but mostly because of the musical direction of Dante Anzolini. 

Anzolini is so at home in Glass' music and his sense of rhythm came into it's own here.  This is an incredibly tricky score and he brought it all together nicely, his concentration  and understanding of Glass' melodic and rhythmic arcs admirable.  It was only in the one continuous scene which comprises the third act that occasionally the tension seemed to flag.  His strong sense of syncopation was used to dramatic effect, especially in the 'On the Kuru Field of Justice' scene and the Confrontation and Rescue scene, peopled by the spectacularly coloured costumes of the white South African landowners.

Performed as part of the celebrations for Philip Glass' 75th birthday, this production makes it easy to see why he is so highly regarded as one of the leading lights of late 20th Century music, I for one would like to see this and his other operas (Akhnaton in particular) as part of the regular repertoire in opera houses around the world, they provide a much needed contrast to what else passes as modern opera.  One is so grateful to the Met for reviving this Satyagraha, and for an uplifting and inspiring night of opera long to be remembered.

All photos from the Metropolitan Opera.