Philip Glass is one of those artists who make you work for the satisfaction that is ultimately to be found in his music. His 1980 opera Satyagraha is no exception. Although it is based on Mahatma Gandhi’s early adult years in South Africa, where Gandhi developed his techniques for non-violent protest, the opera is highly abstracted, and lacks a narrative through-line even though the scenes are chronologically arranged. Unless you know a great deal about Gandhi, the basis of his ideas, Indian theologies and the history of the British Empire in India and Africa, you must rely on the program to make sense of the scenes.
The vocal text (by Constance DeJong) is unlikely to help: It is in Sanskrit. Satyagraha also includes, like all of Glass’ work, innumerable passages of repeated note sequences that make you nearly crazy before resolving themselves and kicking you to a higher plane of consciousness.
The Metropolitan Opera has just completed a run of performances of Satyagraha, including a matinee for the Nov. 19 live broadcast, using the inventive 2008 staging by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch that includes quirky, surprisingly emotive, design and fabulous large scale puppetry by The Skills Ensemble.
Visually the work seduces and thrills. The movement is magisterial, mythic, infused with changing energies by the colors of light, props and costumes. You don’t really have to “make sense” of the scenes: Just go with the flow of energy. “Satyagraha” means “truth-force,” and the truth is in the music as well as the visual and kinetic aspects of the opera.
Could there be a better composer than Glass to musically tell the story of Gandhi, who spent a lifetime making slow structural change? In Gandhi’s life and work (as in the South Africa of the apartheid era, when Glass was writing), there was a lot of repetition before social shift could occur; the patterns of Glass’ music mirror this.
The sounds are beautiful, but stamina is required for the journey. There is of course more to the cast, but it is Richard Croft as Gandhi who’s unforgettable. He and orchestra conductor Dante Anzolini, with his deep experience with Glass’ work, seem to have been on just the same wavelength, because the mesh of orchestral and vocal sound was particularly tight during Croft’s many long solos. The staging involves projected texts (minimal) and, in the cinema version, subtitles, but they can’t detract from the mystical quality of the sound of the Sanskrit words sung in resonant tones over and over. You emerge from the theater at the end as if returning from a long meditation session.
Here's a slideshow trailer for the opera: