I caught the new Met production of Satyagraha this past Tuesday. There’s been reviews of this everywhere (except, curiously, at The Rest is Noise — wonder what’s going to be in my New Yorker this week … ). I’m going to skip discussion and review of the subject, history of the work, etc., because that’s easy to find elsewhere.
What I want to convey is my thoughts about the performance and production. It’s superbly staged for the most part. What happens on stage both is appropriate to the music and also adds important narrative context to what is essentially a non-narrative drama. The puppet design and stage craft by Improbable is excellent, the only drawback being that one wants more of it. Paul Croft as Gandhi commanded the stage with the beauty and dignity of his voice. The singing was excellent overall, including the chorus, something which I think is important to point out with Glass. Most opera-goers seem to miss this aspect of his work; his vocal writing is one of his great strengths. Glass not only writes idiomatically for the voice but consistently brings out great beauty of line and timbre. He may be a radical in a world that endlessly retreads the same mediocre operas, but his aesthetic is dedicated to beauty, which must be part of his general appeal. If a composer wishes to successfully express ideas and drama in vocal music, the necessary first step is to write music that the ear wants more of.
As I wrote above, this is a non-narrative work. Not as ground-breaking in structure as Einstein on the Beach, it places the particular events of Gandhi’s life it covers out of chronological order. It intends to impress with meaning, essence and perhaps wisdom, and it does so through set pieces. Glass’ style is apt for this approach, as it concentrates on the illusion of the static moment, even as time flows and carries the music, and us, along. The one rough moment for the production is the first part of the second act. Here, the opera itself leaves Gandhi as subject and places him as object in the drama, and the structure suffers. The production team cannot quite solve this problem — the staging turns fussy and busy, with too many things going on in too many directions. Once Gandhi takes center stage again, this problem solves itself. More productions will hopefully solve this problem.
The Met is dedicated to the history of opera, and that history has a living component. There’s still an appalling paucity of works less than 100 years old presented there, but at least Glass it not a newcomer to the house. One of the features of the living, contemporary history of opera is that it is being made in the cultural context of non-linear narrative arts: I saw the revival of Last Year at Marienbad at Film Forum, and if the film has lost its surprise and provocation for me, it just means that it’s past ripening for more attempts at non-linear and non-narrative drama to take place on the opera stage. If it’s happening at all at the Met, and if the pleasure of charming 89 year old lady next to me is any indication, audiences are interested in more.
Update: I forgot previously to point out the excellent conducting by Dante Anzolini, who maintained focus and concentration on a difficult, idiosyncratic score, and built a line over the long time spans to powerful climaxes. He also managed the difficult moments of coordinating cross rhythms between chorus and orchestration with exceptional skill.