History and meaning in a magnificent new opera about Gandhi; Satyagraha Opera by Philip Glass. Libretto by Constance DeJong. Conducted by Christopher Keene.
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All this is staged in a dreamlike, almost ritualistic way. The action is slow, deliberate, highlystylized. Some scenes are totally nonrealistic -- the beginning, for example, when Gandhi is flanked by the god Krishna and the warrior Arjuna, legendary characters from the Bhagavad-Gita. Other scenes are ceremonial, as when the Indians parade before a fire to burn their registration cards. The finale operates on many levels, with turn-of-the-century Indians confronting today's police as Gandhi and King look on.Skip to next paragraph
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Heightening the symbolic quality, witha rather heavy touch, each act is presided over by a silent figure on a high platform -- Tolstoy, the Indian poet TAgore, the civil-rights leader King -- whose spirit epitomizes the action below. Though realism does break into the action at times, it can seem like the most surreal stroke of all -- as when the stage is left entirely empty except for a giant printing press, its wheels spinning like an Indian evocation of cyclical birth and rebirth, its gears cranking in peaceful harmony with the propulsive music of the scene.
And it is the music that dominates every step of this grand work, notwithstanding the meaningful beauty of the setting and staging. As usual, Glass conjures up large chunks of sound, conventional in themselves, yet spun and respun in richly repetitive combinations that lend an unearthly new context to their essentially commonplace materials.
It's an awesome trick he pulls off here, weaving the simplest threads of melody and harmony into musical fabrics of enourmous strength, and accomplishing this without the boosted volume and forceful textures of his usual ensemble. He has mastered his style to the point where even the most radically "minimal" techniques take on rare beauty and unexpected resonance.
The production at Artpark was based on the world premiere staged last year by the Netherlands Opera. The sets and costumes were by Robert Israel, with staging by Hans Nieuwenhuis -- all these elements recalling the lavishness of "Einstein on the Beach" as designed by Robert Wilson, although "Satyagraha" (performed entirely behind a transparent scrim) is hazier and less sharply etched.
Musically, the folks at Artpark did themselves proud. Christopher Keene conducted the unconventional score with grace and assurance, working with members of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the superb Artpark Opera Chorus. In the leading role of Gandhi, tenor Douglas Perry outran every adjective of praise: Like the opera itself, his exquisite voice finely embodied the satyagrahan ideal of strength within gentleness and peace. And he looked the part, too.
The opening-night performance was not flawless. There was some roughness in the orchestra pit, and -- disaster! -- the printing press muffed its big solo, quite refusing to function. Fortunately, it had worked picturesquely (if reluctantly) during a dress rehearsal the day before, and presumably it learned its part in time for the second and third performances. Encountered in the lobby during the second intermission, composer Glass expressed his own strong satisfaction with the production, noting that the American musicians gave the music more oomph than their Dutch counterparts did last year. Judging from portions of the Dutch production that have been broadcast on radio, this assessment is accurate, and speaks well for the Artpark artists.
At its most dramatic moments, as when Gandhi is beaten by a mob in Act II, the opera is as tense as any verismom melodrama. Still, its primary value is one of transcendence -- of an ingenious musician, using methods he has virtually invented, transforming the stuff of life and history into high and unprecedented art.