Monday, October 29, 2018

Musically hypnotic and imaginatively staged by LA Opera, proof there is an important place for Glass’ Satyagraha

It’s almost 40 years since Philip Glass’ Satyagraha premiered in 1980, a work commemorating the life of Mahatma Gandhi and commissioned by the city of Rotterdam. With its audacious mix of pulsing orchestral writing, ethereal vocal overlay and a libretto that conceptualises rather than elucidate his life, Satyagraha represents one of the late 20th century’s prime examples of composition that has given unique form to operatic style. 

Sean Panikkar as Gandhi with LA Opera Chorus
Currently on stage for the first time at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as part of the LA Opera 2018-19 season, the work comes in a powerfully sung, imaginative and ritualistic-like staging by English director Phelim McDermott. As an English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera co-production, it first premiered in London in 2007 and New York in 2008, revived in both cities in 2010 and 2011 respectively. 

'Satyagraha' was a term adopted by Mahatma Ghandi to describe his philosophy of non-violent resistance, meaning “truth force” in Sanskrit. The opera’s three acts depict episodes in his life, loosely based on Gandhi’s 21 years in South Africa. Each act is headed by an historical figure who all have a connection with Gandhi in reflecting the work’s central message of pacifism - the Russian novelist Tolstoy (Act 1), the Indian poet and activist Tagore (Act 2) and King, the American civil rights leader (Act 3). They preside high above the stage, in a small boxed niche, mostly inconspicuously, as part of associate director Julian Crouch’s inspired designs featuring an imposing rusted corrugated arced wall.

What gives the impression of being more an expressive sketch of Gandhi’s philosophy, both mythical and real aspects are integrated into the fabric. Constance De Jong’s libretto, adapted from the epic 700 verse Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita and which Gandhi knew and studied, maintains the Sanskrit text. When sung, little is given away apart from a sprinkling of projections across the curved wall. Even without fragments such as “Outstanding is he whose soul views in the selfsame way friends, comrades, enemies”, McDermott’s stylistic and gently-moving direction sends its calming waves of pacifism across the theatre. For those who accept its message, time becomes both irrelevant and uplifted.

J'Nai Bridges, Morris Robinson, Sean Panikkar and Erica Petrocelli 
As part of Crouch’s inspired designs, giant puppets rise out of what first seems to be a pile of garbage to recreate mythical figures Krishna and Arjuna, later animals and officials. A cityscape takes form, a field is planted and a human production line delivers the indispensable Indian Opinion. A paper drop that precedes the act of Indian citizen’s burning their identity cards in a central hole in the stage signifies Gandhi’s growing influence. Every scene vibrates with the music and draws one’s attention. The action on stage, as Glass intended, speaks for itself.

The power of Glass’s work lies in its ability to express his concept’s essence in the most reductive, resonating and mystical way. The score is limited to strings and woodwind, comprising simple repetitions that metamorphose into others and cast their hypnotic quality with ease. The fluid and meandering beauty achieved by conductor Grant Gershon only lacked an occasional desire for punctuated intensity but the players of the LA Opera Orchestra captivated with playing as precise and consistent as a Swiss watch. 

Leading us in the way of peace, Sean Panikkar becomes Ghandi incarnate. With a golden tenor both youthful and commanding, Sean Panikkar was a champion in imparting humility and charisma throughout. From discriminated immigrant to humble activist, Panikkar not only looks the part in presenting Gandhi’s transformation from the English suited lawyer to white Indian dhoti, but seemingly channels Gandhi’s spirit. In Panikkar’s breathtaking and passionate performance, Gandhi is elevated as a disciple to the echelon of gods, appropriately honouring the title Mahatma, meaning “venerable” and “high-souled”.

ean Panikkar as Gandhi with LA Opera Chorus
Surrounding Gandhi’s dominant presence, other figures are captured with subtlety and often no less impact. Bright and penetrating soprano So Young Park is magnificent as Gandhi’s secretary, Miss Schlesen, as is cavernous and colossal bass Morris Robinson as Indian co-worker Parsi Rustomji and muscular baritone Theo Hoffman as European co-worker Mr Kallenbach. Erica Petrocelli’s Mrs Alexander and J’Nai Bridges as Gandhi’s wife Kasturbai are gorgeous in voice, sharing a haunting duet highlight. A little increased power would lift plush-voiced mezzo-soprano Niru Liu’s Mrs Naidoo and mythical figures Krishna and Arjuna are strongly rendered by meaty bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell and warm baritone Michael J. Hawk. From the wild and snappy to the atmospheric and delicate threads of the score, the LA Opera Chorus articulate and harmonise wondrously.

In the final scene the walls part, leaving King poised precariously high at his lectern. He turns to Gandhi in a symbol of respect before Gandhi’s chants stab the soul with their searching repetitions. How can he appear so alone as a leader practising truth through peace? Shockingly, on a daily basis, our world seems empty of such leadership. Today and always, there needs to be a place for Gandhi and Glass’ Satyagraha

LA Opera 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 11th November, 2018

1 comment:

  1. Eventually I had to lock myself in a room, with a dictionary and my lap-top, and read up on "Satyagraha M.K. Gandhi, and listen to the English version of "Bhagavad Gita" and listen to Sean Pinakkar sing "Evening Song"..I got it !