The Long March of Philip Glass

Photo: Ken Howard/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

Listening to Philip Glass’s music is like stroking a cat: intensely soothing, unless you happen to be allergic. The purring repetitions, the warm, silken surface, the incantatory gestures, the voluptuous contentment in holding one pose for an impossibly long time—all these feline qualities spread well-being throughout the Met during its first production of Satyagraha. My eyes itched.

This didn’t entirely kill the enjoyment. Glass’s opera about Mohandas K. Gandhi is long enough to allow for an entire cycle of reactions, from impatience to bliss and back again, with long stretches of a particular kind of languor I have come to think of as Glassitude. The final act encapsulates that journey. Gandhi’s entourage of activists is gradually escorted offstage by soldiers in combat gear, leaving the Mahatma alone with a softly burbling orchestra. Richard Croft endows him with a clear, calm, and righteous tenor, while at his shoulders, on a high pedestal, his future heir, Martin Luther King Jr., gives a silent oration. The slow subtraction of voices and the humble simplicity of the accompaniment act as a musical halo for the saintly bodhisattva. Conducting with spacious beauty, Dante Anzolini brings the score to a quiet, magical finale. Except that Glass must be the sort of person who always stays too long at the party, because after reaching that perfect curtain cue, he spins out another half-hour, steering me from the pleasant stupor I had mistaken for enlightenment back to a dumb, get-me-out-of-here irritation.

Glass and Robert Wilson mesmerized the music world in 1976 with Einstein on the Beach, which made a virtue of endlessness. Four years later, Glass followed it up with Satyagraha, which sketches in, without quite telling, the story of Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa. Faced with a multilingual political movement and an international production, the composer and his librettist, Constance DeJong, opted to have everyone sing in Sanskrit, ensuring that no audiences anywhere would understand. (The Met has turned off its titling system and projected excerpts in English from the Bhagavad Gita onto the sets.) That’s the point: Rather than trying to grasp sense too tightly, they’re saying, it’s better simply to soak in the musical Jacuzzi and absorb moral loftiness through your pores.

In this new production, originally mounted for the English National Opera, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch have rubbed some of the gloss off Glass’s music by using unglamorous materials, and the result is fresh and appealingly handmade. A curving wall of corrugated iron, as rusted and brooding as Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, looms above the stage. Gandhi founded the newspaper Indian Opinion, and here newsprint plays a leading role: It covers windows, gets balled up into stones, is fastened into long undulating chains, and forms the limbs of giant puppets. You get the feeling that Gandhi was trying to hold his forces together with paper and sticky tape. In the last act, the troupe unspools clear tape back and forth across the stage, forming a flimsy cage. Then they gather, roll, and sculpt it, until an aerialist on ropes lifts the quivering mass into the fly space like an ascending soul.

Describing this activity makes it sound more hectic than it is. Glass forms such great expanses of minimal topography that each scenic stroke is exciting in the way that spotting a gas station in Nebraska is exciting. The production unfurls at its own pace, not so much interpreting the music as co-existing with it, just as the opera lingers without explanation on snapshots from its subject’s life. Gandhi grappled with matters of extreme urgency, which Glass hazes together in a beatific swirl of virtue, images, and sound. The scriptural epigrams projected at the back of the stage, the sweetly galumphing puppets, and the molasses melodies over simmering orchestration eventually drove me crazy. It’s a matter of sensibility, I guess. I’m too damn Western not to wish for a flare-up now and then.

By Philip Glass.
Metropolitan Opera. Through May 1.

The Long March of Philip Glass