Sunday, April 13, 2008

Noble Failure

Music by Philip Glass
Production by Phelim McDermott
Associate Director and Set Designer: Julian Crouch
Conducted by Dante Anzolini
Starring Richard Croft, Rachelle Durkin, Earle Patriarco, Alfred Walker

The Metropolitan Opera
Performances on April 11, 14, 19, 22, 25, 28, and May 1, 2008

Richard Croft as Gandhi
(Photo: Ken Howard)
The stunning opening of Satyagraha lays bare the strengths and weaknesses of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of this 1980 Philip Glass work about the years Mahatma Gandhi spent in South Africa (1893-1914), fighting for fellow Indians’ civil rights. As Gandhi sings, he is joined by two other soloists -- Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna -- and a massive chorus, everyone singing in Sanskrit. Glass’s trademark repetitive rhythms are blasted out by the Met orchestra under the steady baton of Dante Anzolini in his Met debut, and the music builds to a stately, hypnotic climax.

Throughout this opening, Phelim MacDermott and Juliam Crouch’s ingenious staging introduces several methods and motifs that will be utilized throughout the evening: newspapers held up by chorus members, upon which key phrases from the libretto are printed; a massive semi-circular wall at the rear of the stage, with various doors through which characters pop in and out; projections of sections of the libretto onto the wall; large-scale, papier-maché puppets of various people and animals; and the talented Skills Ensemble, a group of aerialists and acrobats who make Cirque de Soleil look like it’s standing still.

And so it goes through the next several hours, as this visually stunning production races neck and neck with Glass’s relentless music to see which will wear out its welcome first.

There isn’t much plot in Satyagraha. The libretto -- by Glass and Constance DeJong, based on the Bhagavad Gita -- free-associates scenes from Gandhi’s early life. Whether this pageant moves you or bores you will depend on your reaction to Glass’s famously repetitive music. To these ears, a little of it goes a very long way. Having the same chords played and the same words sung ad infinitum is more simplistic than spiritual music-making.

Likewise, the MacDermott and Crouch production falls short. After introducing the gimmicks noted above, they repeat themselves until the effect becomes wearying, even numbing. In one scene, dozens of clothes hangers drop from the ceiling; the chorus members take off their jackets and put them on the hangers, which return to the ceiling. In the second act, Gandhi’s return to India is visualized by the sudden appearance of skyscrapers and oversized grotesques in human and animal forms. Just as quickly, these puppets then disappear, as if the directors simply wanted them onstage for a brief moment to show off their cleverness. Any sense of the unfortunate masses whom Gandhi championed is lost.

Still, the impressive visual imagination on display here might work wonders for some other, obscure operas. Perhaps the Met could invite MacDermott and Crouch back for Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Martinu’s Julietta, or Braunfels’ The Birds, to name just three musically and dramatically adventurous 20th century works.

The singers invest Glass’s music with frighteningly concentrated intensity. The heroic Met Chorus shows its stamina throughout this lengthy opera by repeating phrases ad nauseum, especially the men; their reiterated “ha ha ha ha”s in the second act are vocally taxing, yet they toss them off like child’s play. Tenor Richard Croft’s Gandhi is an imposing tragic figure who exhibits an overwhelming presence as a mostly mute figure in the second act, then reaches the opera’s fullest expression of spirituality in his final-act aria.

Like John Adams, that other American minimalist who went into the opera-composing business, Philip Glass has taken on subjects of weight and import. But, unlike Adams, he has yet to transcend the limitations of his own style by proving himself equal to the task of writing about such subjects with any degree of transcendent artistry. This makes Satyagraha a noble failure, even in the Met's lively production.

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