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Infinite Universes

New York
04/11/2008 -  and April 14, 19, 22, 25, 28, May 1
Philip Glass: Satyagraha
Libretto: (in Sanskrit) by Constance deJong and the Composer, from the Bhagavad Gita
Rachelle Durkin (Mrs. Schlesen), Richard Croft (M.K. Gandhi), Bradley Garvin (Prince Arjuna), Richard Bernstein (Lord Krishna), Ellie Dehn (Mrs. Nardoo), Earle Patriarco (Mr. Kastembach), Alfred Walker (Parsi Rutomji), Maria Zifchak (Kasterbai), Mary Philips (Mrs. Alexander)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Dante Anzolini (Conductor)
Phelim McDermott (Production), Julian Crouch (Associate Director and Set Designer), Kevin Pollard (Costume Designer), Paula Constable (Lighting Designer)

French philosopher Antonin Artaud dreamed of theatre as gesture, symbol, arcane language, epic and a universe upon an endless proscenium. The dreams of Philip Glass involve real people, and vaguely real languages, but his scope wanders far past real time and real place. When the English design company Improbable took on Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha (roughly “firmness of truth”), they didn’t look upon this as the second of Glass’s trilogy. It is singular. And their vision of imagination, universes, reality and morality seem to have embraced both visions. What resulted in last night’s performance was less opera or theatre or spectacle as a kind of three-hour sacrament.

Or, within the Metropolitan Opera terms, not so much sacrament as a sculpture with infinite angles. One could simply hear the music—repetitive, yes, but always moving, kinetic, each scene with an ostinato carried by soloists, chorus and orchestra. One could marvel at the production, played against a semicircle of corrugated steel, not only with people, but newspapers which formed gigantic puppets, which turned into shadow plays, which opened windows of three iconic figures for each act: Tolstoy, Tagore and King. And above all, newspapers.

But Glass and his librettist hardly made things easy for the audience. The language was Sanskrit, but the only translations were from the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the chapters of the Hindu Mahabarata. These were flashed on the wall, but gave no indication of the drama. For that, one had to read the synopsis, showing (in non-chronological terms) some incidents of Mahatma Gandhi’s life in South Africa, where (what we call) passive resistance was formed for the Indian community against the racist whites who ran the territory.

But one read this synopsis (or even the insert of translations from the Sanskrit) with some misgiving, since Glass and this production have raised the historical “action” into a stasis, and inaction which only gradually makes its way to the heart. When Krishna and Arjuna are on the battlefield in the first scene, one feels the mythology as Gandhi sings, and the chorus forms circles, and out of the circles come gigantic puppets waging mock war. When Gandhi is being pursued by an angry crowd and “rescued” as a society lady guards him with her umbrella, there is movement, but –like all the movement in this series of tableaux—is slow, meditative, without guidance. One feels rather than sees the movement. In the last act, as Gandhi sings, infinite wires are drawn over the stage

The final act is the most touching of all, since almost literally nothing happens. In the background on the wall is the back of an actor playing Martin Luther King, gesturing to a non-existent crowd. In the foreground, Gandhi, with his walking stick, sings a scale no less than 30 times. The orchestra changes at times, the corrugated wall opens to the sky, screens show a shadow-play and a King protest march, but the slow and wondrous music goes on, and on, and on.

Why was it so touching? Again, like sculpture, one can see it in infinite terms. But more than ever, one realizes one of the lessons which Glass learned in India. That music can be dramatic, that it can advance a story. But Indian music—rather Tantric music—brings the listener into another world, that arcane world of obscure tongues and the Zen realization that one truly understands not through logic but through the entrance to that other universe.

(One query, though: why did he use for the last scene of Act II, the opening music of Mahler’s First Symphony? Perhaps one shouldn’t ask. It fit perfectly.)

I hesitate to “congratulate” the singers. They and the chorus sang with purity, clarity and note—for-note perfection. Rachelle Durkin was an amazing soprano when she had the chance, in the second act. Richard Croft was just as amazing as Gandhi. This was hardly aria singing, nor was it monologue or chant. It was…well, Philip Glass. What seems to be repetition is actually organic, what seems frozen moves…like evolution; it moves slowly but inexorably to its purpose.

The chorus was resonant, the Improbable “technical artists” did everything with style, and Dante Anzolini made the orchestra sing through all the slow rigidity and oh so subtle changes.

But enough. This is not an ingratiating work, though its beauty and imagination can never be underestimated. Your understanding comes from within you. The work has gone through many incarnations over the past 28 years. Yet, those incarnations are best expressed from the Gita in the very last scene: “I come into being age after age and take a visible shape and move men…”

Harry Rolnick



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