25 Apr 2008
Satyagraha at the MET
Satyagraha is an odd duck to encounter if you are seeking a traditional opera-going experience or anything like it.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Satyagraha is an odd duck to encounter if you are seeking a traditional opera-going experience or anything like it.
The piece is not a music-drama, an enactment of a story by singers using musical means to express their emotions. Instead of an impersonated text, the characters enact scenes from Gandhi’s early struggles to invent and apply his philosophy of pacific resistance to tyranny while singing/chanting gnomic phrases from the ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
For another matter, vocal art is – how to put this? – not in the forefront in this musical stage piece, though the duet performed by Maria Zifchak and Ellie Dehn in Act III, evolving into an ensemble as Gandhi leads his followers in a triumphant march for striking coal miners, is as gorgeous a piece of sheer vocal sound as the Met has presented all season. Richard Croft, who from his years as an early music tenor (renowned for his limpid Handel) has learned how to fill a simple line with subtle emotion, playing Gandhi made the feeling of enlightened, undramatic mystery both accessible and moving – which I think is what the composer wished to achieve (and failed to achieve, to my mind, in his Akhnaton). These performances are not “operatic” except in the sense that they come from “characters” and sing without microphones, but they thrill the ear for all that.
Philip Glass’s “opera” is more of an oratorio, but not even that, for the text does not pretend to tell any kind of stage-story. The Gita texts are illustrated by symbolic dioramas of six scenes from the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, plus, as prologue, the most famous scene from the Gita itself, and mimed moments in the lives of three contemporaries who influenced or were influenced by Gandhi: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. The scenes presented take place in British South Africa before World War I.There Gandhi developed a philosophy and a following for peaceful resistance to oppression before he took this message home to India, whose liberation he was ultimately instrumental in effecting.
In this extraordinary production by Phelim McDermott to designs by Julian Crouch with lighting by Paule Constable the use of multimedia from modern and ancient sources (puppets, shadows, processions, stilts, aerial stunts, projections, moving projections), has been carefully calculated. Movement and design exquisitely accompanied the musical and dramatic presentation, which demonstrates in its cumulative power the effect of synchronized musical, dramatic and stage structure into one concentrated act of storytelling.
This marks a painful contrast, for example, to the Met’s stagings of Lucia and Peter Grimes earlier this season, where the directors (unaccustomed to opera and unfamiliar with the works they were handling) seemed perversely determined to defy and contradict the dramatic intentions of the creators, to use their stage smarts to frustrate the telling of the tales. Perhaps because of the difficulty Satyagraha would have appealing to any traditional opera house audience if it were given perverse or slapdash treatment, or perhaps just because the composer is alive and present to protest, Satyagraha has been given a production with a care and a thoughtfulness – a concern for the work – that the Met seems unwilling to lavish upon more standard fare.
Newspapers, a frequent trope, represent an example of the sort of metaphor the staging devised to place us in Gandhi’s era: Cheap newspapers were a major breakthrough of the nineteenth century, and with wire services to fill them, there was now something like an immediate world audience for the first time. Gandhi’s revolution might well have fizzled without this avenue of appeal to the “great British sense of fair play” – a thing that did not usually prevent the government from doing whatever it wanted. For the first time in history, the whole world was watching and Gandhi’s moral force was in people’s faces, not an ignorable event in some distant corner of the planet.
Building on this point, newspapers serve screens on which to read subtitles or through which to see shadow puppet shows. Newspapers are balled up as weapons hurled at Gandhi by hostile crowds, and are laid out on stage by busy followers representing, perhaps, the repetitive motions of the labor force (in fields or in factories) who were Gandhi’s audience and his constituency – and the intended beneficiaries of his work.
Special congratulations are due to chorus master Donald Palumbo (the hero, in fact, of the entire season) and to Dante Anzolini, who had the unenviable job of leading the Met orchestra used to more variation than what they play in Glass’s slow-moving and repetitious score, and accomplished this with great success.
The score itself builds upon the usual Glass arpeggios, the repetitiousness that makes each intrusion a fascinating relief. In a Glass score, melody, like text, has been discarded as an expressive tool – and I, for one, deeply regret the fact that melody has ceased to speak to much of the contemporary audience, or anyway to contemporary composers of opera.
What Glass has replaced these things with does not serve the traditional purposes of opera, and so we must examine what purpose an “opera” now has. He relies on rhythm, and he makes tremendous – sometimes excessive – use of it, for instance to express the hieratically slow progress of the peace movement. Then, there is a tremendously effective moment near the end of Act I when the regular four-square rhythm we have grown used to abruptly lurches into a syncopated beat to suggest the turbulence created by Gandhi in his acquiescent society – a traditional trick, and I was grateful for the hint of something comprehensible in Glass’s method.
At the end of Act II, I was also much amused when Gandhi’s followers threw their identity cards into a pit and brought in a torch to set them on fire. Glass, evidently unable to find a way of setting such a moment in his personal stylebook, fell back on illustrating flames in a manner that would have been familiar to Tchaikowsky (in The Maid of Orleans ) or Verdi (Otello), never mind Wagner. Glass renounces expressiveness, but when he finds he needs it, he has to go back to the classics to steal it. It is like the very young couple next door sneering at your old-fashioned notions of haute cuisine and then coming by to borrow a cup of sugar. Refined, unhealthy – and necessary to bake an operatic cake.
The crowd in the (packed) house on April 14 seemed, many of them, new to the labyrinthine Met. They were not sure where the rest rooms or café bars were located when they all rushed for coffee at the intermissions. I (having caffeinated before the performance) enjoyed a flute of champagne to mellow out. The lines seemed unusually short. The house was filled, as it is on all the best nights, with the buzz of conversation debating the performance – from the old and puzzled to the young and disputatious. This may be further evidence that Satyagraha does not appeal to, and on acquaintance does not produce, the sort of excitement favored by the usual opera lover. But that there is a passionate market for it cannot be doubted. Is that market best served by luring it to the Met? Will they return for opera-as-usual or will they insist on this standard of production, to the point of downgrading star singing?
Satyagraha, by whatever fortunate combination of forces, under whatever conjunction of stars, is a magnificent night at the opera.