Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Separating Language from Meaning (on Philip Glass' Satyagraha)

separating language from meaning

Constance DeJong (vocal text), Constance DeJong and Philip Glass (libretto), Philip Glass (music)
Satyagraha / the production I saw was an HD, live production broadcast from The Metropolitan Opera in New York, on November 19, 2011

 In many respects Philip Glass' pageant opera, Satyagraha, is one of the most frustrating of all opera experiences. It is not that the work isn't, at times, musically splendiferous and even powerful—at least in the MET high definition live broadcast I saw in 2011. But Glass takes away so much of what opera is really about drama, language, and, at times, musical comprehension—that it is difficult to get one's bearings.

     I don't mean that the opera, itself, is difficult. The plot, if it can be said to have one, is quite apparent if you have a program. The seven scenes in three acts of the work represent significant moments in the early career of M. K. Gandhi, as he transformed himself in South Africa from a Western-dressed lawyer to a political advocate for the poor and suffering. Beginning with an imagined scene from the battle field of Bhagavad Gita (The Kuru Field of Justice), Glass and his co-librettist, Constance DeJong, take us from 1910 to 1913 in Gandhi's life, exploring his attempts at collective farming on his Tolstoy Farm (named after the great author and social experimenter), through the "vows" of South African Indians to resist registration, to Gandhi's return to South Africa greeted with violence, from a view of his newspaper activities on Indian Opinion in which he first expressed his concepts of "satyagraha" ("insistence on truth"), to the 1908 protest against the Black Act, in which his supporters burned their government certificates, and through to his final strike march to the Transavaal border, where many were arrested.

     Each of Glass' acts are overseen, furthermore, by an historical figure who influenced Gandhi or over whom he would have an influence. From the past, we see Leo Tolstoy, from the present, Gandhi's close friend, the Nobel-prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and from the future, Martin Luther King.

   The program notes explain in some detail what we are experiencing. However, that experience itself is much less lucid. As Richard Croft (playing Gandhi) explained in an intermission interview, it is difficult to act because what is occurring is happening inside, not in the actual drama on the stage. The chorus, and more important, the Skills Ensemble, often play out—in a highly imaginative use of masks, puppets, and through staged acts—what is symbolically occurring, but the actors, somewhat like those of Wagner, are allowed little movement. Yet, unlike Wagner's figures, the major actors here are not even communicating with the audience in a language they can comprehend, since they sing the entire opera in Sanskrit, quoting spiritual fragments of the Bhagavad Gita.

     I am sure that when he first got the idea to use the language and images from a book which Gandhi knew intimately, it must have seemed a brilliant concept to separate language from meaning, but it ultimately cuts us off from true communication and, more importantly, given Glass' minimalist repetitions, presents us with long passages in which we only have a vague idea what is happening—not that it would help to know, at any moment, that Gandhi, for example, is reaffirming his ideals...or whatever. We sense the emotional impact, and Glass' simmering music often seduces us, but, nonetheless, it is sometimes a long endurance test, particularly in the last act, when Glass almost sentimentally links Gandhi with the future American racial revolutionary King—over and over again, so that eventually we must ask whether Gandhi or what he has wrought.     

     The most successful act of this opera is Act II, when puppets, chorus, and major singers all come together to create the horror of the wealthy Dutch landowners and the busy industry of putting together the newspaper, and the dramatic bonfire of government issued certificates.

     The cast, including Croft, Rachelle Durkin as his secretary, Miss Schlesen, Kim Josephson as a supporter, Mr. Kennenbach, and Alfred Walker as Parsi Rustomji were all quite adept, and the Met chorus was absolutely stunning in its ability to learn the Sanskrit score while counting Glass' tricky rhythms. The costumes and settings by Julian Crouch and Kevin Pollard, as well as the stage direction of Phelim McDermott and conducting of Dante Anzolini were all spectacular.

     The Met audience seemed thoroughly charmed by the opera, remaining through the entire series of applauses. Yet, for me, that was just the problem: long on charm, the opera was too short on substance, despite focusing on such a substantial historical figure. But then it is difficult, if not impossible, to think without language.

Los Angeles, November 20, 2011