Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wisdom's Fire; A review of the Met Satyagraha Live in HD

"When the motives and the fruits of a man's actions are freed from desire," sang baritone Kim Josephson as Mr. Kallenbach, "his works are burned clean by wisdom's fire."

Unlike most operas, the words that Josephson sang were not independently conceived texts, but were lines from the Bhagavad Gita sung in Sanskrit, that challenged the borders of thought, expression and prayer.

The McDermott and Crouch production of Satyagraha by Philip Glass expressed Gandhi's gradual identification with the poor, and the development of nonviolent protest, through new ways of seeing things. Common objects like paper and tape come to be understood as having new potentials revealed in wisdom's fire.

The Live in HD cameras provided intelligent angles on the production. It allowed us to move amongst the machinery and to understand the how the improvisational puppetry of The Skills Ensemble interacted with other layers of the performance. Richard Croft was a convincing Gandhi. He was able make his vocal colors an overtone of an otherworldly meditative stance; both present and eternal, of which Gandhi came to define. But something was missing.

The text itself proved a significant barrier during the Live in HD presentation. At the Met, texts were projected onto the walls of the set from time to time. As texts were projected they were also echoed as standard subtitles on the HD screen. The echo was distracting and not necessary.

The Met also tried a new and unique way to prepare for the text challenges in advance of the HD presentation. In addition to the usual one-page program, we were also given an English translation of the libretto in a 3-column format, front-and-back sheet made to look like a newspaper page. It is the first time that anything like this has ever been done. Still, that text was too small to read in the darkness of a cinema, and much of the time we remained outside of the words, even though they were echoed to us onscreen.


Glass has indicated that the text of the opera was meant to be "heard but not read." That is a welcome idea in our overly interpreted world, but it neglects the fact that the significance of the words within Gandhi's culture was that they would have been heard and understood. Understanding the words is the first step toward transcending them. The singing of the texts also sustains phrases repetitions. One brief projection did not sustain the ideas the way the musical setting intended for us to experience them.

When I heard the opera live at the Met the text issue seemed much less of a problem. Why? Because the conductor, Dante Anzolini, was visible the entire time. Anzolini has a unique and aesthetically significant way of articulating the metric patterns to the orchestra, and seeing his presence during a live performance at the Met makes the structure and intention of the music apparent. Throughout the score the succession of metric groupings and figurations constantly shift and when you can see the conducting patterns you can anticipate them. Becoming absolutely absorbed in the music itself is one key to the meditative quality that was sought.

In the Live in HD production, Anzolini was given camera time only briefly at the beginning of each act and did not get an interview during any of the backstage segments, yet we heard from Philip Glass during two different segments. This Live in HD presentation also spent too little time with the physicality of the music itself. This score requires a very distinct kind of counting, requires unusual endurance skills, and makes many other unusual demands on the Met orchestra. It would have been helpful to understanding the opera to have had the opportunity to explore this side of the music during the production.

The "desire" to remain onstage throughout the production may have prevented "wisdom's fire" from allowing us to absorb the music, anticipate its patterns, and find our way beyond the words.

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