Sunday, November 6, 2011

Met Opera Review: Wagner's "Gesamtkunstwerk" finds its incarnation in Met "Satyagraha"

By David Salazar (Opening Night November 3, 2011)
Richard Wagner praised opera as the ultimate art form, a "gesamtkunstwerk" in which all the art forms converge into the ultimate of art forms. For the last few years, Met General Manager Peter Gelb has indirectly pronounced this as his credo and modus operandi with regards to his new productions. Gelb wants theater directors to come in and make the operas fresh and (here is comes) "theatrical." It's a loaded term to be sure considering how theatrical opera is on its own merits and in the traditional sense, but Gelb's conception of theatrical is (my interpretation here) less parking and barking and more action. Thus far in his tenure, the Met has witnessed a rise of new productions, but most have been poorly received, including this years new productions of "Anna Bolena," "Don Giovanni," and "Siegfried." There seems to be little risk taking in hopes of maintaining the conservative audience of the Met and the results often come off as half-baked concepts. In fact, I did a recap of all the productions that have been introduced under Gelb's reign as Met manager and have come up with just a mere two or three that really live up to his billing. However, I do not think that ANY of the new productions that the Met has staged since the 2006-07 season (the start of Gelb's tenure) have come anywhere close to this realization of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" than Phillip Glass and Phelim McDermott's  "Satyagraha."

I'm not lover of minimalist music, which made me a bit apprehensive about attending this work, much less review a performance of it. After all, with no real point of reference or understanding, who was I to dictate how it should be performed, or sung, or staged. Add to that the fact that there are no subtitles for this performance and the entire work is sung in Sanskrit. The aim was for the experience to be meditative and for this reason there are no subtitle references. After experiencing the work, I realized that it was impossible for me not to lay down my thoughts on such a revelatory experience.  I am not sure I could sit and listen to a recording of Satyagraha on my own without the visual reference, nor do I think I ever want to. This performance was the true fusion of music and production that was so powerful and cathartic that I honestly do not know how this work was ever or could ever be done any other way.

Before I continue speaking of the production I would like to emphasize that symbols permeate the production and I do not presume to understand all of them or even be right in my interpretations. But that is really the magic of the production as a whole.  The opera retells the history behind Gandhi's Satyagraha (Truth Force as the program relates) movement. There is no real narrative, just historical references. Act 1 explains how the movement was conceived and takes place on Tolstoy's farm. Act 2 shows the growth of the movement through the press with Hindu writer Tagore as the Act's central historical figure and Act 3 shows Gandhi's difficulties of sustaining the movement. However, Act 3 also portrays Martin Luther King as the movement's successor. It was in Act 3, the scene with the least visual activity, that the power and message of the work really touched me. We see Martin Luther at the center of upstage, his back to the audience up on a high podium preaching. The set is closed off in an oval shape save for the opening through which we see King speak. Gandhi (played beautifully by Richard Croft) is downstage and has just lost all of his supporters and friends and is alone. He turns toward King and the stage opens up around the podium revealing a cloudy sky, giving off the sense that King is preaching to the infinity. At this moment Gandhi walks over to the podium and puts his hand over it, like King his back to the audience. The music changes its direction at this moment and begins a sequence of ascending repetitions. It is a magical moment and one that really brought across that feeling of human transcendence and unity that the opera hopes to send.  Moments later, after singing a gorgeous pleading ascending line time and time again, Gandhi turns around and comes face to face with King: the acknowledgement of that human transcendence, and absolutely cathartic moment.

But that was the highest point of a plethora of previous high points. A fire pit at the center of the stage around which the Satyagraha movement is baptized and announced to the world. The walls of the production open on stage right, left, and center to reveal the giants of the west (stage left), the east culture (right), and Krishna (center). As Act 2 commences, Gandhi enters in his iconic attire from center upstage and big cut outs of skyscrapers descend on the stage. Then we are treated to the famous paper giants that crawl around the stage: The nemesis western empire that Gandhi must compete with. The chorus that has been upstage dressed in western clothing then proceeds to attack Gandhi in one of the most painful scenes I have witnessed on any stage of late.  Later in Act 2, copies of The Indian Opinion (the newspaper that helped perpetuate Gandhi's movement) are spread out in several lines throughout the stage and then lifted from the floor in straight lines as they ascend out of sight. I am only scratching the surface here of all the incredible things to experience here as there are people on stilts, incredible light effects, video projects of a ship dominating the stage, and even video projections of protests to accent Martin Luther King's movement. And I neglected to mention the thread that is woven across the stage again and again in Act 3 that seems like a ethereal protective barrier for Gandhi's followers. I really cannot say enough.

All the while, we are treated to some gorgeous singing. As Gandhi, the star of the show was Richard Croft who I first heard last year in Wagner's Rheingold as Loge.  Gandhi never has to ascend to the tenor's heroic stratosphere, a great choice by Glass. Instead, the tessitura hangs in the middle register and enables for a lighter, more relaxed vocal part, emphasizing Gandhi's passive nature. Croft mastered every phrase, no matter how many times it repeated, with such delicacy and polish. He never sounded the least bit exhausted throughout the entire night, despite the clear concentration demands of minimalist music. As a musician, I can attest that performing minimalism demands perhaps a greater level of concentration than any other, leading to a great sense of fatigue by the end of the night. The rest of cast was equally remarkable, particularly in the difficult ensembles that litter the work.

Conductor Dante Anzolini was another great hero of this night as he not only held the entire cast and orchestra together with amazing compactness, but really made Phillip Glass' music vibrate, when it is so easy for it to degenerate and sound like repetitive harmonic exercises. He received the accorded thundering applause, as did the rest of the cast and directing team. However, after they all took their bows, Anzolini separated from the pack and went to stage right where he asked for another person to come on stage. The man who stepped out was none other than the composer himself, Phillip Glass. Everyone stood up and gave him the greatest ovation of the night. And rightfully so. Even though the Met is currently performing the works of the greatest opera masters: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner (and in a few weeks Puccini), it is Phillip Glass' opera that represents the season's high point to date.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this twice. It's good. So, of course, much bitching from the Met audience that demands Le Boheme for the 2000th time.