by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Lincoln Center New York City .

April 22, 2008

Let me say right off the bat that the Metropolitan Opera should be congratulated for reviving Philip Glass's well known master work "SATYAGRAHA," a minimalist opera depicting the early years of the heroic Indian leader, Mahatma Ghandi. Peter Gelb, the new managing director, is unafraid to produce work that at one time had been considered experimental--out of bounds for the classical repertory of the venerable opera house. But now into his second season, Gelb's desire to present opera as a theatrical experience is justified by this stunning Glass work. The music remains the same; nothing is changed from its original intention. What is changed is the production: the staging by the gifted director Phelim McDermott and set designer Julian Crouch who have used brilliant theatrical elements to produce a thrilling asthetic experience. Our thanks to Peter Gelb for encouraging this kind of work.

The story in three acts is not difficult to follow though sung in sanscript and without supertitles. Projected on a scrim at the top of the set are important lines from Mahatma Ghandi's work and that of the Bhagavad-Gita, the ancient Hindu sacred text that clearly reflected Ghandi's philosophic view as well as Glass himself.

The acts are divided into three parts, each dedicated to three men who influenced Ghandi and were influenced by him. Set during Gandhi's early years in South Africa when his beliefs were taking shape, the story depicts the famous battle (as described in the Bhagaved-Gita) between the Kutuvas and the Pandavas--a battle for power that neither side won--though Lord Krishna (an important Hindu god) backed one side over the other. Act two depicts the SATYAGRAHA (the name chosen by Ghandi that personified peace and justice), and their peaceful struggle against tyranny and, at the time, the persecution of Indians in South Africa. True to their philosophy of living the simple unaccommodated life, the Satyagrahas built their own commune, the Tolstoy Farm, named after the famous Russian writer who had opted for the simple agrarian life, though he was an aristocrat. Rejecting violence, and resolved to form their own agrarian collective, the Satyagrahas built everything by hand, using natural products, and were always mindful of their struggle to influence the world to "fight on behalf of truth."
The story comes across by the director's use of imagistic symbolism that underscores Ghandi's political and philosophical struggles and those of his followers. To practice peaceful resistance against oppression, an idea for which Ghandi achieved world wide fame, was throughout his life always a struggle despite his fortitude.

With an uncanny imagination the director and his staff utilized unusual material to create Ghandi's world. First, the puppets--ugly, grotesque, animal like creatures--made of paper-- carried by women on stilts, are clearly emblems of the bestiality of war. Paper, used for slogans, coats, hats, dresses, and placards reflected Gandhi's own political newspaper "Indian opinions." Some other common materials used were wood, wires, sticky tapes , corrugated fibre glass, kits, rods, poles and lots of rope. Wood was particularly inventive as the company built their homes with wooden squares shaped like bricks. And a particularly compelling scene is the Satyagrahas shedding their outer garments--plainly discarding their worldly possessions to discover their true selves--and in choreographic harmony, hang their clothes on sticks and raise them into the heavens.
Some after thoughts. I had seen the Glass piece at BAM some years ago when Glass was just emerging from his triumphant "Einstein on the Beach" the collaborative piece with the brilliant Robert Wilson. Staged in a small theater and a smaller space than the opera house, the SATYAGRAHA production was simplified and unelaborated matching Glass's minimalist score so that the music predominated the event, which created a seductive quietude, a trance like ambiance, akin to a Hindu or Buddhist meditation.

At the opera house, the music seemed overshadowed by the brilliant mise en scene, so that Ghandi's simplicity and Glass's minimalist did not quite match. Also lines from the Bhagagvad-Gita projected on the screen seemed like sermonizing slogans and was somewhat off-putting, while the cast's intensely slow walking (fashioned perhaps by the Buddhist meditation walk) projected a sad funeral rather than a ritual contemplation.

Finally, the third act did not reach a crescendo or tremendous climax except for the gorgeous solo of the tenor Richard Croft, who stood beneath the frame of Martin Luther King's shadow, as King, with outstretched arms gesturing, as he delivers his famous speech. Truly an effective moment. Philip Glass's SATYAGRAHA is a noble piece, a courageous work and a splendid opportunity for people, especially the young, to see a contemporary work performed with all the magic of brilliant music and brilliant singers all together on the great stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Surely a thrill--not to missed.

Margaret CROYDEN is the author of "Conversations with Peter Brook" 1970-2000" (Farrar Straus & Giroux).


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