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12 April, 2008

Satyagraha at the Met Monday 14th April 2008.

Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Satyagraha. Travesty and con-job in my estimation.

Richard Croft, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Rachelle Durkin, Ellie Dehn, Maria Zifchak. Conductor Dante Anzolini.

Dear Colleagues,
The Met has let us down badly with this ‘opera’ entitled Satyagraha. They have stated in various places that subtitles are available to all their operas – yet this was apparently an exception with major disadvantages for all involved. Because it was sung in an Indian dialect the entire opera was incomprehensible to most of us. A recent religious movie was made in Aramaic but subtitles kept viewers abreast of events. The only distant benefit was to remind us how much we missed before titles were introduced.

My opera notes are normally written from my experience in the theatre. Since the advent of titles I have made a point of not researching operas before seeing them in most cases. In fact I have not purchased a program for many years, preferring to use books, musical scores, CD booklets and even Google for my references ‘after the fact’. This has enabled me to form an impression from the work itself and not from various explanations from directors, designers, composers and (worst of all) opera managements. Since this is a great story of a great man, it is a shame I still have little idea of what it is about. I am still not certain how to pronounce the title. I missed ‘Gandhi’ the motion picture, but those who had seen it clearly were able to enjoy the opera better for the experience.

The ‘music’ of Satyagraha is nothing if not repetitive. All composers repeat their music yet this must break all bounds for cutting and pasting in music. One single semi-quaver note on the word ‘ha’ was sung 80 times at one stage - I was so bored that I started counting, like sheep in the night! And this monotony went on for what seemed like 20 minutes: ‘ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha’ 8, 16, 32 or more times in half or quarter notes separated by arpeggios of 4 crochets. If this is a useful, pleasant or beautiful musical device, and I am not sure that it is, then only a mighty ego in a composer could think that repeating it with only the slightest chromatic modulations over 100 times would be musical, tasteful or indeed, tolerable. I found it boring and unimaginative. Many patrons near me slept during much of the performance. If the words were of profound wisdom poetry then they were lost on most listeners. Occasional large projections which could only be read by those in the center of the theater gave little indication of events and some were in poor English translations (eg. ‘very excellent’).

Yet for boring repetition (and there was lots and lots of that) it would be hard to beat the final 15 minutes in which Gandhi, played by Richard Croft, repeats the same brief Sanskrit phrase on the same rising melodic minor scale of 8 notes what seems like 35 times in a very slow tempo. Mr Croft has a beautiful voice and while it is a pleasure to behold, after attending a 3 hour master class last week it was hard not to analyse. In this ‘scritto’ repetition, the ‘gear change’ occurred variably in the last 1, 2 or sometimes 3 notes. Males have head and chest voices, just like females, although it may not be talked about as much. Hence boring music became a singing lesson of sorts, and this is not a criticism of Mr Croft, just of Philip Glass and his poverty of invention. Speaking of which, one repeated motif I recognised from Cavalleria Rusticana, note for note. And that was repeated at least 3 times for me to be sure. No problem with that, it is just a shame that there was no development of the motif from that point, nor more interesting ‘borrowings‘ to balance the ‘machinery’ noise from the pit. I was reminded of the below-deck scene on “The Ship Sails On” where the famous singer competes with the steam turbines of an ocean liner. Doubtless some enjoy this sort of music which I personally consider a slow torture.

The other singers, chorus and orchestra should all be commended for accurate production of a work with so many alien features (a whole scene in act 1 appeared to be in 7/4 time!!). I think Rachel Durkin as Gandi’s assistant received the biggest applause apart from Croft himself.

The end came close to midnight and remarkably, many patrons remained in the expensive seats. A friend who sat in the Family Circle said that there was an exodus after the second intermission as people gave up on the work after a decent hearing of 2 acts. Neither had as much as an aria, a poem or a beautiful tableau from the stage. I had hoped for some particular high point in honour of the great man of the story.

The orchestration relied heavily on an electric organ which was quite overpowering at times, even against perhaps a half sized Met orchestra. Sometimes the tempi were extremely fast, other times embarrassingly slow. Much of the action on stage was in apparent slow motion. Again, if this is a clever device (and I am sure it can be) it can also be over-done and as with much we witnessed in the theater during the opera, excessive repetition was the order of proceedings.

On the other hand, the production was one of the most extraordinary and original I have seen in my life. Yet much of it was hard to connect with the life and times of the great man. Much was clearly drawing attention to the originators themselves more than to their story-telling skills. There were huge puppets operated by wires and rods; twice people are taken off stage via a ‘sky wire’ for no apparent purpose; alcoves in the massive curved corrugated iron set had inane household things going on as people climbed, or were pushed in or out. In one chorus scene variously dressed members all removed their outer garment as three rows of coat-hangers on chains were lowered from the fly level. It was bizarre as several dozen items had made their way from a dark wardrobe to grace the upper levels of the Metropolitan stage, the symbolism, beauty or utility of which was lost on me and others I spoke to.

Much of the story line depended on newspaper clippings which I learned later were emphasising this important means of communication for the resistance movement in South Africa. A Google search reveals that Satyagraha means nothing more than ‘non-violent resistance’. I still do not know how much if any of the story involved India. While there were dates from the late 1800’s to the 1920s there was no clear indication of what was going on. The entire floor of the Met stage was made up of glazed old newspapers (although they were in colour which seemed incongruous).

Another crazy scene saw about twenty minutes taken up with a slow motion chorus as one character after another rolled out cello-tape across the stage, each at a particular level and all horizontal. The result was a series of taught tape ties across the stage. These were snipped, cut, bundled and jettisoned, again to no particular effect … except to wonder what the director had in mind with this odd waste. In another scene a circular section was cut out of the floor, attached to a wire and flown off to the top of the stage accompanied by a stunt person - to no particular effect. Except that it did leave a fire at center stage into which each chorus member one by one monotonously threw what I learned later were Government ID cards (like Draft Card burnings in the US). This may have been the only meaningful part of the whole production, yet I missed it in the theater.

The act 1 puppets appeared to be made up of screwed up paper which was immensely clever artistically if over-my-head dramatically. Those used in act 2 were quite different and formed a hounding or herding band around the protagonist. The tallest could easily have passed for Fassolt of Fafner in the Ring. The others took the form of huge expressive Dickensian characters operated by rods, each with its own unusual anatomical features. Once again, I am not sure what it all meant, then or now.

All in all a disappointing night at the theater.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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