Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha was presented today on the Metropolitan Opera’s HD network. First performed in 1980 this work is essentially an opera without music. It consists entirely of chanting for soloists and chorus accompanied by orchestra. Further complicating things is that the words have nothing to do with the story. And the story is mainly implied. Actually, there really isn’t a story.

First the words; they’re in Sanskrit – a dead language. They’re from the Bhagavad Gita. As they have nothing to do with the story, they’re not translated. The only way the audience can know what’s supposed to be happening onstage is to read the program notes. These notes can be found here. I’m not going to comment on them; so if you’re curious, read them yourself. There are a few hints now and again which are displayed on scenary or props which might help explain what’s not going on if you’ve carefully studied the notes.

Each of the operas three acts is named after a character that is somehow related to the piece’s protagonist, Mohandus K Gandhi. The first is Leo Tolstoy whose novels are great despite his strange philosophical meanderings; he had a great influence on the young Indian’s political thought. The second is Rabindranath Tagore the Bengali poet and polymath who was the first first non-European to win a Nobel prize – literature in 1913. He was both a friend and moderating influence on Gandhi.

The last Act is entitled King. Martin Luther King was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s non-violent protests. All three of the characters appear in a high box at the back of the stage in the appropriate act. They don’t do very much and never make a sound. They, like everything else in this opera, are supposed to set a mood or tone. The whole opera is about mood and tone. Compared to it, Parsifal is the chase scene in the French Connection.

In general, the opera is supposed to inspire good thoughts about the struggle against oppression and poverty in people sitting in $350 seats. This right thinking was further exemplified by Joseph Lelyveld during an intermission interview; the Pulitzer Prize winning author of a biography of Gandhi, Lelyveld managed to equate the recent immigration law passed in Arizona with the Black Act that inspired Gandhi’s Satyagraha Campaign in South Africa. An inability to make meaningful distinctions is another hobgoblin of the mediocre mind.

Most of the “music” sounds like an expanded version of the figurated chords that opens a Bellini or Early Verdi aria, but which lasts for three hours instead of a few seconds. Thus, more than any opera I can think of, unless it’s also by Glass, this one depends on its staging. And here the Met came through with a home run. The sets by Julian Crouch and costumes by Kevin Pollard were colorful and interesting; but it wasn’t possible for them to relate to something that wasn’t happening – ie, action.

The most creative part of the show was the Improvisational Puppetry of the Skills Ensemble. These 12 men and women, combing the techniques of Sesame Street and Cirque du Soleil, manipulated giant puppets, unwound miles of Scotch Tape, and flew around the stage giving the show a distinct aura. They were great.

The singers were equally proficient. Since my Sanskrit is rusty, they might just as well have been executing a vocalise. Writing an opera in Sanskrit is even further out than Mel Gibson making a movie in Aramaic. Nevertheless they sounded first rate. Richard Croft, as Gandhi, has the part, both vocally and visually, down to perfection. Glass does not make great demands on any of his singers so its relatively easy for the highly competent professionals the Met has assembled to deliver the goods once they get past the dead language and get the count right on the endless repetitions that make up most of any Glass score.

While all the singers were very good, particularly noteworthy was Maria Zifchak as Gandhi’s wife. How do I know she playing his wife? The program said she was. The Met’s chorus had a very large role, what exactly it was I’m not sure, which they dispatched with their now customary excellence. Who knows if the language gave them any problem.

Dante Anzolini apparently has conducted Satyagraha before this run. He seemed to have no trouble keeping count of the score. Barbara Willis Sweete avoided the closeup disease that had afflicted her earlier outing in this series of telecasts.

Finally, a confession. Only someone with malignant insomnia could remain awake throughout all of a performance of Satyagraha. I did nod off a few times. Some years ago I compiled a list of the best opera to nap through. This one definitely deserves pride of place. The repetitions and unchanging harmonies should soothe the most restless spirit.

Finally (really), the audience in the house was very enthusiastic at the opera’s end. Whether this was a sign of genuine enthusiasm or a desire to appear sophisticated and enlightened is impossible for me to know.

Metropolitan Opera House
November 19, 2011

Philip Glass–Constance DeJong

M. K. Gandhi…………Richard Croft
Prince Arjuna………..Bradley Garvin
Lord Krishna…………Richard Bernstein
Miss Schlesen………..Rachelle Durkin
Mrs. Naidoo………….Molly Fillmore
Kasturbai……………Maria Zifchak
Mr. Kallenbach……….Kim Josephson
Parsi Rustomji……….Alfred Walker
Mrs. Alexander……….Mary Phillips

Skills Ensemble:
Phil Eddolls, Charlie Folorunsho, Alex Harvey, Nick Haverson,
Tina Koch, Charlie Llewellyn-Smith, Vic Llewellyn, Charlotte Mooney, Kumar Muniandy, Caroline Partridge, Rajha Shakiry, Rob Thirtle

Conductor……………..Dante Anzolini

Production…………….Phelim McDermott
Associate Director……..Julian Crouch
Set Designer…………..Julian Crouch
Costume Designer……….Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer………Paule Constable
Video Design…………..Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer of Fifty Nine Productions
TV Director………….Barbara Willis Sweete