In the dwindling twilight of the final moments of Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha, the audience finds the figure of Mahatma Gandhi – riding on undulating arpeggios and rising scales that seem to drift hazily from across the expanse of time and cosmos – gazing towards the figure of Martin Luther King, Jr. Destiny linked these two men, not only by a just cause which consumed the whole of their existence, but also by the martyrdom they both would tragically reap. Yet another figure, invisible, loomed large over these final moments: the question mark whose shadow drooped heavily over this cryptic coda. Just what was this all ultimately about?

Sean Panikkar (Gandhi) © Cory Weaver
Sean Panikkar (Gandhi)
© Cory Weaver

It is a curious irony that the second of Glass’ operas has become something of a repertoire staple. Satyagraha is simultaneously subversion and lament. The composer undermines the traditional functioning of opera, taking apart the various elements that one normally expects to cohere – plot, stage action, libretto and music – then suspends and isolates each of them, treating them as things to be admired in and of themselves, without concern for how they relate to each other. Are audiences moved by the opera for reasons that are germane to it? Or is it because its composer has artfully manipulated their cursory knowledge of Gandhi’s life, as well as their deeply-held emotional associations that color their expectations of major and minor key music? Glass’ stage personages emerge as if from a bas-relief, standing incongruously before a tapestry woven from his unspooling of operatic syntax.

Yet behind its play of operatic conventions is an acknowledgement that the genre’s day as the zenith of musical expression has passed, that “opera” in the modern world cannot be... and that if it must be, it can only survive as commentary upon itself. The depths of Satyagraha lay far beyond the notes on its pages.

Sean Panikkar (Gandhi) © Cory Weaver
Sean Panikkar (Gandhi)
© Cory Weaver

LA Opera's staging by Phelim McDermott, who had previously directed it at English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, was the very incarnation of Glass’ morose, yet phantasmagorical soundworld; a dizzying masterwork of virtuoso stagecraft. McDermott properly understands Satyagraha as a kind of dream of “opera” rather than the thing itself; hypnagogia staged and set to music. Puppeteers seemingly spontaneously erected creatures inspired by the Vedic texts from the Bhagavad Gita that comprise the opera’s libretto, writhing about and lashing forth, until they dissolved from sight, making haste to return to their Borgesian bestiaries.

The singers, headed by the plangent tenor of Sean Panikkar as Gandhi, coped superbly with the manifold challenges in articulation, timing, focus and stamina this score poses to singers. Soprano So Young Park was refulgent as Gandhi’s secretary, Miss Schlesen. Bass Morris Robinson summoned vocal reserves in his turn as Parsi Rustomji that seemed to draw its power from the very depths of the Earth. 

Patrick Blackwell (Lord Krishna) © Cory Weaver
Patrick Blackwell (Lord Krishna)
© Cory Weaver

Grant Gershon conducted the LA Opera Orchestra in a reading that was admirably fluent, if lacking the last ounce of the rhythmic verve so crucial in Glass’ music. The chorus was transparent, yet weighty.

Programming at the Los Angeles Opera can (let us admit) be a little safe, tending to the same warhorses with a fleck of one-off new commissions. This production of Satyagraha, however, demonstrated that they can breath fire, too, when they want; unafraid to set their audiences’ minds alight with the elegiacally beautiful enigmas this score presents.

****1