There is nothing ordinary about Philip Glass's magnificent new opera, "Satyagraha," which recently had its American premiere at Artpark in upstate New York and will be heard in November at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The subtitle, "M. K. Gandhi in South Africa 1893-1914," gives only a clue to the form and content of the work. While the action concerns a famous historical figure, it focuses on a little-known period of his career. Other aspects of the opera are equally unusual. The text is written and sung in Sanskrit. The words come from an ancient Indian epic, the Bhagavad-Gita. And the music is pure Glass, based on his own radical principles of gradual, deliberate, artfully repetitious musical development, coupled with a rock-steady pulse.
Even for Glass, however, this work is a departure. Unlike most of his earlier music, "Satyagraha" is not scored for an amplified ensemble of keyboards and woodwinds. Rather, the forces are a normal orchestra of medium size, minus brass and percussion, with one electric organ. While there is a busy chorus, recalling the avant-garde masterpiece "Einstein on the Beach," there are plenty of arias and duets and triots for conventional operatic voices.
In sum, Glass has wedded his unorthodox techniques to the normal sonorities of the opera house. The result is as fresh and original as any major work from his earlier career, far surpassing his austere last opera, "The Panther." For him, as for his "minimilist" contemporary Steve Reich, a step back into Western musical tradition can be the boldest leap forward of all. Throughout its three-hour length, "Satyagraha" is a work of utmost delicacy, combined with extraordinary musical richness and stirring dramatic power. At a time when notable new operas are regrettably scarce, opera companies should be scrambling to present it, with its present stging or in new renditions of their own. It's a deeply fascinating work that should not be allowed to fade from the stage because of fears over its innovative character.
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