Compared to the publicity blowout that preceded the season-opening production of Lucia di Lammermoor—a wild-eyed Natalie Dessay plastered over dozens of city buses—the Metropolitan Opera’s promotion of the company’s first production of Philip Glass’ 1980 opera, Satyagraha, which opened April 11, was almost restrained.
“Could an opera make us stand up for the truth?” asked one poster. “Could an opera make us warriors for peace?” asked another. (The outdoor campaign was underwritten by Met patron Agnes Varis, a devoted political activist and philanthropist.) If Giuseppe Verdi were around, he would have asked, “Can this opera make money?”—a philosophy that brought forth such trivial entertainments as La Traviata, Aida and Otello, not to mention a piece of fluff called Tristan und Isolde.
I don’t doubt for a moment Mr. Glass’ commitment to the ideals that his opera promotes—it’s an heroic portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in his first years as a defender of the Indian people—but he’s just as much a man of the theater as old Verdi.
Satyagraha (which means “Truth Force” in Sanskrit) has been making money for the same reasons those other operas have: It has something to say, and mostly says it well. Mr. Glass’ brand of minimalism can be maddeningly plain, yet it’s the product of a transformative genius. The operatic creations of John Adams, which the Met will present in future seasons, may be more subtle and dramatically varied, but they’re built on Mr. Glass’ template.
The composer and his librettist, Constance DeJong, adapted a sequence of texts from the Bhagavad Gita into a series of tableaux that depict Gandhi’s struggle to organize oppressed Indian workers in South Africa in the years before the First World War. The action is often static, but then so was Gandhi’s method: his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, which inspired Martin Luther King Jr.
A sumptuous staging would have gone against everything Gandhi stood for. The production team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch—who first crafted their version for English National Opera—therefore made their simple sets out of corrugated metal, with reams of newsprint used as props and bits of décor. (Corrugated metal was used by the colonial powers to build fences and basic structures; Gandhi’s newspaper Indian Opinion helped build support for his cause.) The contributions of a “Skills Ensemble” of aerialists and puppeteers maximized the mythic wonder inherent in the story.
If economy and invention went hand in hand, it was often to the benefit of Mr. Glass, whose music was sometimes too spacious for its own good. (Let’s just say that Act II could use a hefty 10-minute cut.) Perhaps Act III—a tragic tone poem built largely on the alternation of two chords—was the most effective. Dr. King motioned silently from on high; blocks of newsprint, affixed like funeral plaques to a massive wall, were stripped off to reveal television screens showing footage from Bloody Sunday and the March on Washington.
Act III is also largely a duet for tenor and conductor, and it profited from the solid musicality and poignant phrasing of Richard Croft (singing the role of Gandhi) and Dante Anzolini (in his podium debut). In the roles of Miss Schlesen and Mr. Kallenbach, two of Gandhi’s European followers, Rachelle Durkin and Earle Patriarco provided sterling support. The Met Orchestra, used to the subtleties and complexities of Mozart and Wagner, cranked out Mr. Glass’ endless arpeggios with professional dispatch.
ONE OF MR. Glass’ biggest fans is the pianist Bruce Levingston, who gathered a glittering audience for his solo recital at Zankel Hall on April 14. Among the crowd, one could spot the distinguished composers Charles Wuorinen and Sebastian Currier, there to hear their music world-premiered; the pianist’s pianists Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal; the actor Andrew McCarthy; the writer Dana Vachon; and Michael Stipe and David Rockefeller, who need no introduction.
Not everyone had a Platinum card, of course. But what all these boldface names have in common (like the composers Mr. Levingston has championed over the years, a list that includes David Del Tredici, Milton Babbitt, William Bolcom, Lisa Bielawa and Mr. Glass) is that they’re among the best at what they do. It would be a mistake to see Mr. Levingston’s nearly decade-long series of Premiere Commission concerts as fancy social occasions: They’re serious events in which both new and familiar works are presented with a singular combination of challenge and delight.
Mr. Levingston picked pieces that speak to his strengths, which are considerable, and performed on the same carefully voiced Steinway that Alfred Brendel used for his farewell New York recital. The columnar chords of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, a seminal work of Baltic minimalism, came through with a remarkable radiance and calm, as did the liquid sequences of a Debussy étude. Mr. Levingston’s New York-premiere performance of the prominent German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s Brahmsliebewalzer, a surreal though loving tribute to the master, allowed his rendition of Brahms’ late Intermezzo in E Major, which immediately followed, to strike our ears with refreshment and wonder.
Both Liszt’s daunting Vallée d’Obermann and Mr. Currier’s absorbing and exquisitely crafted Departures and Arrivals seemed not only played but lived through, musical diaries that seamlessly mixed the composers’ thoughts with those of their interpreter. Composers cherish these kinds of concerts; the Premiere Commission series should go on forever.
Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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