A Transformative Staging of Satyagraha

22/10/2018

Glass, Satyagraha: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / Grant Gershon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 20.10.2018. (JRo)

Sean Pannikkar (Gandhi – left), Patrick Blackwell (Lord Krishna – center)
& Michael J. Hawk (Prince Arjuna – far right) (c) Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Cast:

M. K. Gandhi – Sean Panikkar
Miss Schlesen – So Young Park
Mrs. Naidoo – Erica Petrocelli
Kasturbai – J’Nai Bridges
Mr. Kallenbach – Theo Hoffman
Parsi Rustomji – Morris Robinson
Mrs. Alexander – Niru Liu
Lord Krishna – Patrick Blackwell
Prince Arjuna – Michael J. Hawk

Production:

Director – Phelim McDermott
Associate Director and Set Designer – Julian Crouch
Costumes – Kevin Pollard
Original Lighting – Paule Constable
Lighting – Tony Simpson
Video Design – 59 Productions

To properly experience a Philip Glass opera, one must put aside the notion of narrative arc and revel in the non-linear structure. This is particularly true for Satyagraha, Glass’s interpretation of Mahatma Gandhi’s awakening during his sojourn in South Africa. It would be difficult to imagine a more compelling and sensitive staging than that achieved by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch in this production, which hails from the English National Opera and the Met.

Glass operas are particularly dependent on their staging – one would be hard-pressed to imagine Einstein on the Beach without Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking sets. In many ways, this production achieves what Wilson did for Einstein – music and meaning become inextricably linked to visual interpretation. With the contribution of the ‘skills ensemble’ of Improbable, co-founded by McDermott and Crouch, Glass’s opera scales artistic heights using the humblest of materials: newspaper, corrugated iron, baskets, sticks – the flotsam and jetsam of the streets, the materials of poverty. Large-scale mythic animals seem to rise up out of the debris. Stilt walkers and aerialists manipulate giant malevolent newspaper puppets – the embodiment of oppressive colonialists.

The opera takes place in front of a set of movable panels, stitched together to form a floor to ceiling arc of what looks like corrugated and rusted metal. Perched high above the stage in window-like openings in the panels, each of the guiding spirits of the three acts of Satyagraha appears: Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. The opera zigzags through time and space, illustrating scenes from the Bhagavad Gita to life in South Africa to a cross country protest march – all concerned with Gandhi’s constant struggle to achieve equality through non-violent resistance. If it sounds a bit didactic, it is, but then no one can doubt Glass’s commitment to portraying the spiritual values inherent in his opera or the cumulative effect of his mesmerizing score.

Sean Panikkar, a rising tenor from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, made his LA Opera debut as Gandhi. Believable in his portrayal, exuding both strength and vulnerability at once, he has a voice with the clarity and robustness to project above the swirling rhythms of the score, and his natural vibrato had the effect of adding texture to the whole. It was a persuasive performance.

J’Nai Bridges was seen here in 2016 as Nefertiti in Glass’s Akhnaten, and as Gandhi’s wife she once again proved to have the depth of tone and expression to carry off the vocal demands of a Glass score. As did the constellation of supporters surrounding Gandhi: So Young Park, Erica Petrocelli, Theo Hoffman, Morris Robinson and Niru Liu were commendable. Patrick Blackwell as Lord Krishna and Michael J. Hawk as Prince Arjuna proved an imposing pair.

The LA Opera Chorus was the beating heart of the opera, creating drama with their vocal dexterity. Directing the chorus and the orchestra, Grant Gershon kept the rhythms and harmonies rolling in a delicate balance of orchestral timbres.

This staging will long linger in memory as a tribute to Gandhi’s vision. In one tableau after another, Glass and this team of artists have created a reminder of what it means to share a commitment to truth and the will to make a more just society.

Jane Rosenberg

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