Opera

'Satyagraha': Simplicity & Splendor in the Glass

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008

NEW YORK -- The first impression is of simple beauty: a tenor voice, cushioned by the ebb and flow of repeating cadences from the orchestra. The stage, enclosed in a curving wall of corrugated metal, evokes a prison: We will be trapped for hours in a world in which nothing happens. But as the music morphs from one pattern to another, the stage picture reveals new vignettes. Piles of wastepaper rise up rustling from the chorus as giant homunculi. A bird walks past on stilt legs. And the corrugated wall opens to admit the towering pale figures of giant puppets, doughy men gathering briefly, like monsters or magi, around the central figure of the singer before departing again as if they had never been, in an evening that moves forward like a dream.

The Improbable theater company's production of Philip Glass's "Satyagraha," which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night, represents the kind of work the Met should be doing. It is an important revival of a major recent piece. It is a significant work of theater. And it provides an all too rare demonstration of the fact that new opera can indeed be a contemporary art.

Not that this should be the Met's only fare, and it is certainly not for everybody. To some lovers of traditional opera, "Satyagraha," with its repeating musical patterns as steady and unremarkable as the passage of time itself, might resemble "Chinese water torture" (as one audience member said on Friday). But if the work has a hope of reaching those listeners, it is through the high musical standards of this production. Rather than putting the piece in a new-music ghetto, the Met has cast it with some fine singers -- Richard Croft, Earle Patriarco and especially Maria Zifchak -- and placed it in the capable hands of the conductor Dante Anzolini, who made a memorable Met debut. Orchestras usually hate playing Glass, whose music is difficult (the rhythms have small tricky variants that require constant attention) and physically demanding (all those repetitions are grueling). The Met orchestra sometimes sounded as if it were fighting Anzolini, but he prevailed by keeping the lyricism and finding the line in the music.

"Satyagraha" is a watershed piece in Glass's oeuvre. Written in 1980, it represents the first time the composer stepped beyond the bounds of his own ensemble and took on the conventional forces of classical music. The score still retains exhilaration of an artist presented with a new set of tools. After Glass found this voice, he sometimes set it on autopilot; many of his later works lack the consistent level of inspiration of this one.

Glass's music also accords beautifully with the theme of the opera. "Satyagraha" is about the years in which Mohandas K. Gandhi, then living in South Africa, developed his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. The topic is epic enough for opera, but it is depicted with the musical equivalent of nonviolence: a quiet constancy without overt climax. The orchestra consists only of strings and winds, stripped of the bombast of brass and percussion. It gently worries at ideas, subtle but insistent, coalescing into entirely new thoughts without the listener always being cognizant of how it got there: an eloquent echo of Gandhi's own process. Many new operas involve simply applying some kind of musical language to a story; one of the refreshing things about "Satyagraha" is that the music actually means something.

Music is, in fact, a major vehicle of meaning in a work that has only tenuous links to the conventional idea of a story. Anyone who wants to understand the Gandhi part of the narrative has to do some extra reading in the intermissions. The libretto is drawn entirely from the ancient Bhagavad-Gita, and sung in Sanskrit, and its words, meditative and philosophical, do not add up to anything as prosaic as a plotline.

It is perhaps an extra challenge for the singers that they are given little conventional sense of character to work with. Glass's vocal writing adds another challenge, requiring long, sustained passages of singing and, for the soprano, high writing that sits in awkward parts of the voice (a Glass hallmark). Rachelle Durkin did her best as Miss Schlesen, Gandhi's secretary; Alfred Walker was disappointingly pale in his first long solo passage; and Patriarco was a stout pillar in the beautiful vocal ensembles that were some of the work's highlights. Zifchak and Ellie Dehn (in her Met debut) twined dark mezzo and high soprano voices in a moving musical arch around the final act. And Croft gave himself utterly to Gandhi, investing the role with a fitting, radiant simplicity.

It is left to the directors to figure out how to bring the story across to the audience. The beauty of the Improbable production, conceived by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (and already premiered last season at English National Opera), is that its imagery is so greatly bound up with the music. The chorus comes together to form larger entities -- monsters, animals, surfaces for slide projections -- then drifts apart, like Glass's notes. In the final act, singers crossed the stage with rolls of packing tape, unrolling them at all different heights, until the whole space was filled with dozens of shimmering bands, vibrating like the music around them; this whole construct was eventually crumpled into a small ball, showing visuals as ephemeral the passing notes.

The whole evening was a towering work of non-event: to some, boring; to many, including this listener, it was a profound and beautiful work of theater. The final act is a masterpiece of the power of simplicity. At the very end, while Croft embarked on a pure, ascending line, sung over and over, and the figure of Martin Luther King Jr., taking up Gandhi's ideas, mimed his own great speech behind him, the back of the stage was filled with a pure blue sky, then clouded with an image of angels, marring the moment with an image of kitsch, presenting the hope of redemption as sugary illusion. Was this new beginning only a deception? Not on Friday, when the production was greeted with rapturous and genuine applause.

There are five more performances through May 1.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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