Opera Review: SATYAGRAHA (LA Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on November 2, 2018

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


What is it about Philip Glass’s operas that have completely captivated me? You would think that all of that minimalism — the spellbinding reiterating arpeggios, unhurried modulations and almost uniform orchestrations — would bore me to tears. Perhaps there’s something mathematical or perfectly in harmony with nature (or in nature with the harmonies of molecular structure itself), but my experience with LA Opera’s previous presentations of the astounding Einstein on the Beach and the monumental Akhnaten were positively transcendent.

Well, magic didn’t strike thrice last night with Satyagraha: Act I had enough Glassian elements to keep my interest piqued, but it didn’t have me in a trance; Act II was phenomenal with amazing visuals and truly narcotic vocals; but the excruciating and lulling Act III made me wish I had kept that appointment to have a thousand shards of glass instilled in my left eye. As Ghandi walked ever-so-slowly singing an ascending scale pattern in the Phrygian mode 30 times, it felt more soporific than contemplative.

Named for the idea of nonviolent resistance started by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a.k.a.”Mahatma” Gandhi, this three hour and forty minute opera focuses on Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa between 1896 and 1913, his encounters with Tagore and Tolstoy, and his legacy to the Civil Rights movement. It seems the creators wanted to celebrate and remind the world of Ghandi’s ability to take a stand with peace — the same ideals that inspired Martin Luther King, who stands silently with his back to us, slowly reenacting his “I Have a Dream” speech for much of the third act.

Satyagraha, which translates as “truth-force,” borrows from ancient Sanskrit religious texts (Bhagavad Gita), and is sung in that language. Yet it is neither biography nor hagiography of Ghandi. Constance DeJong’s libretto, written in collaboration with Glass, is more abstract ideas than anything else, and the visuals certainly follow suit.

And since there’s no “dialogue,” there’s no need for supertitles. Even masters of Sanskrit will no doubt need translations, as Glass — to put it lightly — can repeat a syllable multiple times. Hence, the sung text, which really has nothing to do with the dramatic action (if you wanna call it that), is projected along the back wall of of the circular set. (An example: “Do the allotted task for which one is fit, for work is more excellent than idleness and the body’s life proceeds not, lacking work.”)

A good scouring of the synopsis may help a bit, but when you’re traveling between mythic plains and jumping around in time, it will be enervating if you try and make sense of it all. The times that I wasn’t bored and perplexed, I was more than content to float away in a trance on a magic carpet of yumminess. A few times, were I a Buddhist, I surely would have considered apostasy.

LA Opera offers English National Opera’s outing, staged by renowned director Phelim McDermott. This is a behemoth production, but much much darker than Einstein and Akhnaten, with hardly any of the saturated colors or whimsy. Aided by 59 Productions’ video designs, Kevin Pollard’s colonial costumes (which had a terrific touch of dried mud ground level), Paule Constable’s ethereal lighting (reproduced by Tony Simpson), and associate director Julian Crouch’s corrugated iron and newspaper-infused scenery, McDermott employs an assortment of other über-creative skills, including aerialists, acrobatics, and puppeteers. My favorite was a slithering black hole of newspapers that swallowed Ghandi whole.

Sadly, the best work — gigantic papier-mâché Mardi Gras heads surveying the scene below — was only present for a very short time. Scene after scene, it’s like walking through a great museum of surreal expressionism, with one striking visual following another — but you’re forced to stare at the same framing for far longer than desired. Only the second act was visually stunning, musically mesmerizing, and breathtakingly staged at the same time.

And when that music soars, it’s unforgettable. Philip Glass may be an acknowledged master today but when his opera premiered he was still the “bad boy” of Minimalism who had dared to invade the world’s opera houses. But time has revealed powerful, hypnotic music filled with driving rhythms and exquisite choral harmonies that are filled with a sense of poetry and meditation. I’m astonished at the way he takes the simplest and most essential of ingredients and produces huge and carefully shaded arrangements.

Here, the score was energetically and persuasively led by conductor Grant Gershon (if you’re ever not into the show, watch one of L.A.’s greatest treasures at work). The indefatigable Maestro also directed the LA Opera chorus, who had the formidable task of singing all night in repetitive Sanskrit! The music is arduously difficult, and my jaw was agape when the chorus intoned repetitions of “ha, ha, ha” for quite some time with vigor and conviction. (While the score is an endurance test for performers, half of the opera shouldn’t be an endurance test for the audience.)

I wouldn’t listen to this score at home, but those moments when Glass’s music — especially a divine, otherworldly sextet — was at a confluence with the eerie, imaginative imagery at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it created a transcendental, almost spiritual, experience that I would have been sorry to miss.

At the heart of the show is Sean Panikkar’s unselfish, plainly sung Gandhi — human, poignant and substantially honorable. The American tenor from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, is even-toned and strong throughout. One of the best singers LA Opera has introduced us to in years (this is his debut here), Panikkar is also an astonishing replication of the loving activist.

It’s a bit difficult to single out the other roles, as it’s hard to tell just who is who sometimes (remember I was zoned out). As always, J’Nai Bridges (as Gandhi’s wife) sings resoundingly with sensitivity and tenderness; Patrick Blackwell is striking as Krishna (oh, yeah, Krishna’s a character here, too); and there’s stunning work all around from (in alphabetical order) Michael J. Hawk, Theo Hoffman, Niru Liu, So Young Park, Erica Petrocelli, and Morris Robinson, all of whom — except Petrocelli — have appeared with LA Opera before.

And this completes LA Opera’s deliverance of the so-called “portrait” trilogy of Glass’s operas, each of which tackles the subject of a historical individual whose ideas changed the world: Einstein (1976), Gandhi (1980) and Akhnaten (1984). All three of these broadened the scope of what could be considered operatic, and their staging and theatrical innovation revolutionized the way music drama is performed. As for their success in performance, two and a half out of three ain’t bad.

photos by Cory Weaver/LA Opera

LA Opera presents an English National Opera production
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave.
ends on November 11, 2018
for tickets, call 213.972.8001 or visit LA Opera


Teddy November 3, 2018 at 9:32 am

That’s a good review. I had similar mixed feelings but I was very glad to have gone. The highs were memorable and — while I expected there were going to be loooooooong passages — I only wish there were more visuals in the third act.

Jackie November 5, 2018 at 10:40 am

What a boring review! Did ACT II, save the day, thus making it worthwhile?

Tony Frankel November 5, 2018 at 4:49 pm

I promised a “nonviolent” review, so I forgot to make it not boring!

So, Jackie, that’s a loaded question, because now one must consider the price of the opera. I’m rather certain discount seats are available. (Had this been Einstein on the Beach, I would have said buy tickets even if they’re $600.) I liked Act I; and I loved, loved, loved Act II — those are indeed worthwhile.

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