Theater Reviews

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Metropolitan Opera, New York
Through May 1

Philip Glass' rarely seen 1980 opera about Gandhi receives a magnificent treatment in this new co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera. Staged with endless amounts of flair and imagination by Phelim McDermott and his collaborator/set designer Julian Crouch (both of the Improbable Theatre), this "Satyagraha" is both musically and visually gripping.

Glass' work is notable for its many deviations from traditional opera. For instance, its libretto, by Constance DeJong, is composed of passages from sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita. It is sung in the original Sanskrit, with only select passages translated into English and projected on the rear wall. (The title, by the way, is loosely translated as "truth-force.")

Although it is inspired by Gandhi's efforts for the rights of the Indian minority in South Africa from 1893-1914, the piece, which begins with a section depicting a mythical ancient battle, is nonlinear and largely abstract. Later sections incorporate such historical personages as Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, with whom Gandhi frequently corresponded; Indian literary figure Rabindranath Tagore; and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who frequently cited Gandhi as his inspiration.

Glass' repetitive but melodic score, clearly influenced by Indian raga, is handled with Herculean stamina and intensity by the main singers and the large Met chorus. Tenor Richard Croft, who has made a dramatic physical transformation for the role of Gandhi, delivers a bravura turn, especially in the demanding final aria that provides the evening with its powerful emotional climax.

McDermott and Crouch -- employing the services of the 12-person Skills Ensemble of acrobats and aerialists -- have delivered a consistently striking production design that primarily uses physical elements that were well familiar to Gandhi himself, including corrugated iron and newspapers (the activist published his own journal during that period). Giant papier-mache puppets are used to great effect, as are the extensive video projections that help set the scene.

To be sure, one must enter a certain meditative state in order to fully embrace this lengthy (nearly four-hour) and demanding work. But given the haunting intensity of the evening, it's not at all difficult to do.

SATYAGRAHA
Presented by the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera
Credits:
Music: Philip Glass
Vocal text: Constance DeJong, adapted from the Bhagavad Gita
Book: Philip Glass, Constance DeJong
Director: Phelim McDermott
Associate director/set designer: Julian Crouch
Conductor: Dante Anzolin
Costume designer: Kevin Pollard
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Video designers: Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer
Cast:
M.K. Gandhi: Richard Croft
Prince Arjuna: Bradley Garvin
Lord Krishna: Richard Bernstein
Miss Schlesen, Gandhi's Secretary: Rachelle Durkin
Mrs. Naidoo, Indian Co-worker: Ellie Dehn
Kasturbai, Gandhi's Wife: Maria Zifchak
Mr. Kallenbach, European Co-Worker: Earle Patriarco
Parsi Rustomji, Indian Co-Worker: Alfred Walker
Mrs. Alexander, European Friend: Mary Phillips
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