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Satyagraha

NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Opera
11/4/11

The idea of a Philip Glass opera as a repertory item at the Met would once have been a punchline, but it happened on November 4. An inventive and musically astute production of Satyagraha, originally seen at English National Opera, first came to the Met in 2008. At this season's revival, with Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch's conception of the work a known quantity, the overall impression was of the beauty and polish of the orchestral playing and much of the singing. The question of "performance practice" came to mind for the first time in Glass's operas. Conductor Dante Anzolini, who made his Met debut leading Satyagraha in 2008, coaxed sounds of velvety depth and spectacularly-maintained pianissimos from the orchestra all evening, along with the expected hair-trigger precision in rapid measures of seven beats. The chorus, fifty strong, offered the plushest and most well-blended of sonorities. 

Richard Croft, in the very long principal role of Gandhi, sang not only with gorgeous tone but with character, voicing joy, buoyancy or humble pleading and devotion as required. Bradley Garvin (Arjuna), Maria Zifchak (Kasturbai) and Kim Josephson (at least in the first of Mr. Kallenbach's scenes) similarly gave performances that said, "if you are singing at the Met, you sing as beautifully as possible." Anzolini even made expressive use of rubato, unlike so many Glass conductors, in Gandhi's final solo scene. Glass's music didn't sound like this when it was new, and one can only wonder if he ever conceived of it sounding this way. But there was no question that, as with the competing recordings of Glass's string quartets by Brooklyn Rider and the Kronos, the music stands up to markedly different interpretations.

The staging offers much to enjoy on a moment-to-moment level. Shoes (or the polishing thereof, or the lack thereof) are a frequent motif, along with newspapers (and the sounds that can be made with them). We see the production of each effect, and we watch the actors who play Tolstoy, Tagore and Martin Luther King getting into costume. The lush purples, dusty roses and burnt oranges of Gandhi's native India soon give way to paler tones for South African scenes. But the score is composed in a different way for Act III, which is not divided into scenes, and the production honors this. Clothing is pure white for the New Castle March, for which there is only a single primary stage action involving the manipulation of what seems to be two miles of cellophane tape. The staging has only one miscalculation, in the depiction of the famous incident of Mrs. Alexander giving protection to Gandhi with her parasol. The rest of the staging avoids literalism (the printing press was represented only by rolls of paper and huge bars of type) but here we simply got Mrs. Alexander brandishing her parasol. It was the only moment when opera seemed an irrelevant art form.

This Satyagraha is performed without the Met's seat-back titles, and it is hard to remember any production since the system was introduced that didn't use them. This might have been perverse, since Satyagraha, sung in Sanskrit, is the opera least likely to have anyone in the audience able to understand the text. But it turned out to be a brilliant decision. Just the right amount of information was incorporated into projections specifically conceived as part of the design. It was an important lesson. When Patrice Chéreau's production of Janáček's From the House of the Dead came to the Met, simultaneous projection of every line of text onto the scenery and on the seat backs ensured that no member of the audience could ever become involved in the world onstage. Restlessness was epidemic. Here, the audience sat in rapt attention for twice the duration of the Janáček. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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