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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Satyagraha, opera in three acts. Libretto by Constance DeJong, adapted from the Bhagavad Gita (1979)
M. K. Gandhi: Richard Croft (tenor)
Prince Arjuna: Bradley Garvin (tenor)
Lord Krishna: Richard Bernstein (bass)
Miss Schlesen, Gandhi’s secretary: Rachelle Durkin (soprano)
Mrs. Naidoo, Indian co-worker: Molly Fillmore (soprano)
Kasturbai, Gandhi’s wife: Maria Zifchak (alto)
Mr. Kallenbach, European co-worker: Kim Josephson (baritone)
Parsi Rustomji. Indian co-worker: Alfred Walker (bass)
Mrs. Alexander, European friend: Mary Phillips (alto)
Skills Ensemble, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Dante Anzolini
Rec. live, 19 November 2011, Metropolitan Opera, New York
Booklet included. Subtitles in English, French, German and Spanish

It is always good to have one’s prejudices challenged. I had thought that Philip Glass, like Steve Reich, had peaked early, and that his culminating work of pure minimalism, Music in Twelve Parts, was his best work. Then I was blown away by the recent production of his third ‘portrait’ opera, Akhnaten, which was streamed online in 2020 and will doubtless in time be issued on DVD. So I was eager to see the second ‘portrait’ opera, Satyagraha, and here it is, a good ten years after the production it is taken from. (I have not seen the first ‘portrait’ opera, Einstein on the Beach.) Glass is apparently very particular about which productions he is prepared to see memorialised in this way, as he is quite entitled to be, so we can be sure that he approves of this one. He is interviewed in one of the bonus extras, and the DVD is issued by his company. It was a co-production with English National Opera in London but this is the American version. However, Glass makes it clear in the notes to the booklet and in an on screen interview that he stood back from advising the production team.

Satyagraha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘holding onto truth.’ It was used by Gandhi to refer to his policy of non-violent resistance to oppression. He developed it during his twenty years in South Africa, and later applied it in India, where it led eventually to the end of British rule and independence. The opera’s subject is Gandhi during his years in South Africa. It does not present a narrative but rather a series of tableaux which link Gandhi respectively to the past, the present and the future. In the first act, Gandhi is looking back towards his inspiration in Tolstoy. In the second there is his friendship with the poet Tagore. In the third he anticipates Martin Luther King. There is a helpful guide, based on this production, available here.

Now here comes the problem. In order to understand what is going on, you have to read the synopsis. The words of the libretto do not relate to the action they are presenting, except in the most tangential way. Rather, they are excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu sacred scripture. And they are sung in Sanskrit, a language unlikely to be known to most of both the performers and the spectators. There are precedents for this, notably Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, which is sung in Latin. But Stravinsky took care both to use a story which is already well-known and to intersperse his work with explanations by a narrator in the language of the audience. (Latin is, or perhaps was, also rather better known in the West than Sanskrit.) Instead, Glass provides translations of some – by no means all – of the words, projected on a screen at the back of the stage and also, on the DVD, as subtitles. But these are few and far between, so that, for example, in the first scene you are well over halfway through before the first titles appear. I at first thought there was something wrong either with the DVD or the settings, but then the Metropolitan Opera commentator explained in the interval that this was deliberate. The result is that you are constantly burrowing in the booklet to find out what is going on when you should be following the work. The story of Gandhi’s early struggles is both interesting and important and arguably should be better known. But it is not a myth like that of Oedipus which educated people can reasonably be relied on to know, and which Stravinsky’s narrator explains anyway in case they don’t. It is interesting that in Akhnaten Glass presents a simpler action and also has a narrator on stage as one of the characters, which suggests he had seen the problem with Satyagraha for himself.

The music is itself in places both attractive and impressive. There is a great deal of work for the chorus, and I was particularly taken by the choruses in the second act, in which the Europeans in South Africa attack Gandhi. But there is a heavy reliance on Glass’s trademark arpeggio figurations and there is a great deal of repetition to the point where it becomes hypnotic and makes it difficult to concentrate. In some ways, more important than the arpeggios is Glass’s very subtle sense of harmony, always slightly melancholy and changing slowly. The range of orchestral colour is deliberately restricted, with only strings and woodwind: no brass or percussion.

The stage is largely empty of scenery, though there is a small cavity in the back in which we see successively the presiding spirits of the three acts. The costumes are splendidly in period: Gandhi himself moves from being a Westernized barrister with a three-piece suit at the beginning to an Indian holy man in a white robe with a stick by the end. Of the others, I was particularly taken with the garish but appropriate costumes for the European farmers in the second act. A particular feature of the production is the use of large puppets mimicking the action which are deployed and then dismantled. However, there are some features I found incomprehensible, such as, in the last act, a succession of bowed figures unwound more and more sellotape across the stage. This was later rolled up into a sticky mess by actors on stilts.

The singing is very good, with Richard Croft’s Gandhi being particularly impressive, though I should note that, like Parsifal, while his part is long, the amount of actual singing he does is much less. The women were good too, though even by the end I could not be sure who was who. There are a few interviews as extras and the booklet is informative, indeed essential. The live recording is done with the skill we have come to expect from these Metropolitan Opera productions. There was a previous DVD from Stuttgart in 1983 and there have been two sound recordings on CD, but this is clearly now the version to get. All concerned have done the work proud but for me it fails to pack the punch that Akhnaten does. Still, Glass’s many admirers should be well pleased.

Stephen Barber

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