When Philip Glass has a musical idea, he repeats it. And repeats it. And repeats it.
On and on and on. Dozens of times, maybe hundreds, perhaps thousands. It's like an aural jackhammer, lulling the listener into a trance or pounding him into submission, according to one's taste.
Glass' "Satyagraha," based on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, was given its Metropolitan Opera premiere Friday night. Lovers of Glass will find it compelling. Many others will conclude it is among the dullest, most tedious operas ever composed.
Not even a striking production by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch could alleviate a night of unrelenting boredom. There were fascinating, giant, abstract puppets made of newspapers; dramatic video projections; people on stilts; and others flying in and out on wires. Colorful clothes descended from the rafters. Shoes lined the front of the stage. Transparent tape stretched from wing to wing _ a crumbled bit nearly stuck to one stilt. There was a fire and a heavenly chorus. Singers moved across the stage at a Wilsonian glacial pace.
But through it all was this annoying music, sticking to the ear like gum to a shoe. And the restlessness was heightened by the Met's curious decision not to translate Constance de Jong's Sanskrit libretto on the company's seat-back title system, instead occasionally projecting words onto the sets, where they often were hard to read. That miscalculation made an already long evening of nearly 4 hours seem interminable.
Still, much of the audience responded with loud applause, especially when the 71-year-old composer came out for a curtain call. It was a chic crowd that included actor Richard Gere, Tibetan monks and Rajmahon Gandhi _ grandson of the Mahatma. In London, this production was a hit when it appeared at the English National Opera last year. Maybe the Glass ceiling is higher in the U.K.
"Satyagraha," which debuted in 1980, is the middle of Glass' portrait trilogy, between "Einstein on the Beach" and "Akhnaten." With a title that translates to "the firmness of truth," the opera is about Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance, and it covers his years in South Africa from 1893-1914. Glass compares him to a historical figure in each of the three acts: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The image of King standing behind a podium, gesturing to the imaginary crowd behind the stage was one of the evening's most effective.
Tenor Richard Croft, clad in white, his head shaved, gave a bravura performance as Gandhi. His voice soared in the first act over the music, creating the feeling of a Latin Mass or a cantor chanting in a synagogue. As the night went on, he had less and less to sing. Maria Zifchak, portraying the role of Gandhi's wife Kasturbai, made some saintly sounds.
As in a Britten opera, the chorus was omnipresent. Its performance seemed impeccable, but what percentage of the audience could discern whether the Sanskrit diction was crisp or muddled?
Conductor Dante Anzolini had the difficult task of keeping everyone together. At times it appeared he was using the fingers of his left hand to count down for those on stage how many repeats were left in a segment.
The real stars of the evening were McDermott, who was in charge of the production, and Crouch, the associate director and set designer who partners with McDermott in the theater group Improbable. It will be interesting to see what Crouch designs next season for the Met's new production of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic."
Gandhi displayed remarkable patience in his life. Patience is a requirement to sit through "Satyagraha."
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