OPERA NEWS - Satyagraha
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LA Opera

In Review LA Opera Satyagraha hdl 119
Satyagraha at LAO, with Erica Petrocelli, J’Nai Bridges, Morris Robinson, Sean Panikkar, So Young Park and Theo Hoffman
© Cory Weaver/LA Opera

SATYAGRAHA, Philip Glass’s operatic meditation on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, does not present Gandhi’s growth as an activist within a linear narrative of events. Instead, the workdeploys multiple images, both from nightmarish, personal sources and from the violent political iconography of the twentieth century, to tell Gandhi’s story. There is no orderly chronological sequence, and the language used is Sanskrit, which Glass specified should not be translated in supertitles.

One of the great achievements of Phelim McDermott’s ENO–Met production, which had its LA Opera premiere on October 20, is that this stylistic and formalistic mélange excites the audience and does not confuse them. Act I—musically the least interesting of the three acts—is at times annoying in its opacity, but after the tremendous spectacle and virtuoso musical splendor of Act II, the entire theater was at ease with the shifting levels of the action. In contrast to the breathtaking sheen and discipline of his production of Akhnaten, seen in Los Angeles in 2016, McDermott’s Satyagraha is gritty and discordant. The grotesque puppets by Rob Thistle, the costumes by Kevin Pollard and Julian Crouch’s set, which credibly carried us back and forth through the twenty-five or so years of Gandhi’s stay in South Africa, amounted to one of the most impressive and transformative exercises in epic theater I have ever seen. One left the performance more deeply aware of the plight of the underprivileged in our world, but equally aware of the moral purity and spiritual strength that Gandhi embodied. 

Glass’s orchestra is reduced to strings and woodwinds; brass and percussion, with their militaristic and authoritarian associations, are absent. Instead, the orchestra is liquid, suggesting the flow of human emotions between people. Grant Gershon elicited a rich blend of sound. One of the joys of Glass’s music is that the more minimalist it becomes, the closer we listen. This was especially the case with the final act. Quieter than the other two, its achingly beautiful, chamber-like quality depends for effect upon the slightest changes in tempo, key or harmony. Gershon unfolded the act with painstaking care and precision.

American tenor Sean Panikkar made his LA Opera debut as Gandhi. His voice is ideal for the role, with the warm center of his range suggesting the human impulses that led to Gandhi’s renunciation of all aggression and competition, while the higher part of the range, memorably displayed in the great final solo, evoked the character’s extraordinary spirituality. His fellow satyagrahis, who sang mostly in ensemble, provided a musical companionship that intensified in beauty as the evening drew on. As Miss Schlesen, So Young Park hit an extraordinary series of stratospheric high notes; J’Nai Bridges sang with warmth and empathy as Kasturbai, and Erica Petrocelli was an endearing Mrs. Naidoo. Theo Hoffmann’s Mr. Kallenbach was an invigoratingly workmanlike colleague, and Morris Robinson provided the ensemble of Gandhi’s fellow workers and disciples with an impressive and, in its own way, sublime bass foundation. —Simon Williams

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