At first impression, Philip Glass might seem to embody all that is intimidating about opera at its most culturally exclusive: shows five hours long (without intermission); obscure, coded symbolism; and plots that are difficult or elusive, if present at all. But for anyone willing to brave shows like Satyagraha, his music is immediately recognisable and redeeming. That’s because Glass has so influentially permeated cultural common – his sound has reached from ground-shaking film scores like Inception, to the finely tuned world of soporific-yet-focussed study music. Listening to any opera by Glass, even for the first time, always feels like re-listening to some extent. That’s also because the composer’s stylistic trademark, minimalism, is all about repetition: music that builds and falls in waves, where the slightest change can have a profoundly moving effect on the audience.
It’s a form perfectly suited to Glass’ Portrait trilogy, of which Satyagraha is the second. Each opera from the series, which includes Einstein in the Beach, reflects on an influential historical figure. Its also suited to Gandhi in particular. Richard Croft’s fragile, but powerful tenor presents the leading role in all its gentle forcefulness. Like Glass’ composition, the power to affect grand change arises from small moments of magic in a flow of history and sound.
Satyagraha loosely follows Gandhi’s time in South Africa between 1896 and 1913, giving more heed to thematic connections than a strict sense of chronology. We follow Gandhi from his arrival as a lawyer through the first experiences of oppression and activism until – in the climactic third act – Gandhi’s act of resistance at the Newcastle March slingshots us through time to the American Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. Glass’ message couldn’t be more timely.
This production, directed by Dante Anzolini, is also about the means and material of revolution. During the first act, South Africa’s white oppressors appear as grotesque papier-mâché puppets, lumbering giants above Gandhi. Later on, after the publication of Indian Opinion, newspaper has been repurposed for figures of Hindu mythology and organised protest. Likewise, the western clothes Gandhi renounces return to King, Jr. at the podium.
There are no subtitles, largely because Satyagraha has no dialogue to follow in the usual sense. The characters sing a tissue of quotations from the Bhagavad Vita, the Hindu scripture which inspired Gandhi and Glass in turn. Fragments are projected onto the stage wall as a reflective commentary on the staged action. The recording includes short summaries and interviews with cast members during the intervals between each of the three acts.
Alongside Glass’ compelling score, this production of Satyagraha is powerfully visual and engaging. A rare few weaker moments are more than paid off in an unforgettably moving final scene. Amid the material waste and forgotten moments of history, Croft’s voice comes close to breaking with the pain and strength, force and gentleness of truth.
The Metropolitan Operais streaming archived performances from the last 14 years every night. You can watch Satyagraha here until 11:30p.m. BST Monday, June 22, alongwith interviews, performance guides,discussion and more.The Met’s entire catalogue is also available to rent anytime online for a monthly subscription fee.
Review written by Daniel Shailer.
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