Two Ways of Looking at Philip Glass’s ‘Satyagraha’

Productions of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha,” a meditation on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, always seem to arrive right on time.

When “Satyagraha” had its American premiere in 1981, a divided country still suffered a hangover from the 1970s. A revival opened at the Metropolitan Opera during the peak of Occupy Wall Street. And, as different productions simultaneously arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Los Angeles Opera recently — well, you know what life is like these days.

The opera’s staying power owes much to Mr. Glass’s haunting score. But its perennial relevance is also baked into the libretto, which Constance DeJong adapted from the Bhagavad Gita, a classic of Hindu scripture and a foundational guide for Gandhi’s activism.

In the text, entirely in Sanskrit, the god Krishna damns those who “have no other aim than to satisfy their pleasure” and assures us that, time after time, whenever righteousness gives way to lawlessness, he will manifest on earth, “thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again.”

You could say the same for “Satyagraha,” which lay dormant for years after its premiere but eventually took root in the repertory, carrying its sermon of social change to theaters around the world. But since it’s largely abstract, it needs a strong director who can shepherd Mr. Glass’s message from the score to the audience. The stagings in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles concentrated on spectacle.

Tilde Björfors’s concept for the Brooklyn Academy’s production, an import from the Folkoperan and Cirkus Cirkör of Sweden, was like a Cirque du Satyagraha: The music, arranged for a smaller orchestra and ensemble by Anders Högstedt, was accompanied by scene-stealing acrobatic analogues. There was a circus double, Alexander Weibel Weibel, for the role of Gandhi, skillfully sung by the tenor Leif Aruhn-Solen.

The staging at Los Angeles Opera, which runs through Nov. 11, is a coproduction that’s previously played at the Met and the English National Opera. Directed by Phelim McDermott, with additional direction and scenic design by Julian Crouch, puppetry evoking Otto Dix, and surprising uses for everyday material like tape, this “Satyagraha” was a triumph at the Met. (In a recent interview, Mr. Glass called it “even better” than the 1980 premiere.) None of its novelty has been lost en route to Los Angeles.

Ms. Björfors’s vocabulary is the circus, just as Mr. McDermott’s is puppetry and Mr. Glass’s is his signature arpeggios. Where the two productions differed most — and where one foundered while the other excelled — was in presenting the story of Gandhi’s life.

Ostensibly, “Satyagraha” is about Gandhi’s years in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914. During this time, the young lawyer formed his guiding philosophy — satyagraha, an untranslatable portmanteau that roughly means “truth force” — and fought for the civil rights of Indians.

Events like the founding of the activist newspaper Indian Opinion, the leading of a peaceful protest march, and a confrontation between Gandhi and his opponents, are presented, but the libretto gives no indication of specific stage action for these episodes. This stylization extends to the naming of the three acts, each for a figure who could be called a practitioner of satyagraha but none of whom have roles in the work: Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King Jr.

Because the libretto comprises only words from the Bhagavad Gita, it is up to the director how much, if any, of the biographical material to reveal to the audience — and how. At one end of the spectrum of possible “Satyagraha” productions is biopic; at the other, abstract ritual.

In Ms. Björfors’s staging, text is projected onto various surfaces of the set. Some of it is the English translation of the Sanskrit being sung, but much is new: historical context that keeps each scene grounded in the reality of Gandhi’s life. The audience gets exact dates and locations, as if sitting through a multimedia presentation at a museum.

This material doesn’t always exist gracefully alongside the circus movements, which in turn don’t always feel appropriate to the libretto or the score, expertly played but slightly starved in the reduced orchestration. The circus acts were at first a smart, if distracting, echo of the relationship between risk and payoff in Gandhi’s life, and the emphasis of the Bhagavad Gita on delicate balance.

But the concept didn’t carry through the third act, when sublime music was accompanied by what often felt like movement for its own sake. And too much of the staging had the twee surrealism of a Michel Gondry film: A man in a suit and bowler hat flew across the stage with a typewriter, and Mrs. Alexander, a Gandhi defender, floated with an umbrella as if she were Mary Poppins.

In Los Angeles, Mr. McDermott opted for a more ritualistic presentation. Attending this production, you will learn almost nothing about Gandhi, but you may leave profoundly influenced by the Bhagavad Gita.

Biography is hinted at in the use of newsprint, so central to Gandhi’s life and work, as a guiding image of the set design. And, thankfully, the star is a person of color: Sean Panikkar, an American tenor with South Asian parents, brings his character to life in a way I hadn’t seen with white singers in the role.

During the opera’s most punishingly repetitive passages, the cast and orchestra, conducted by Grant Gershon, showed signs of fatigue and lost some necessary precision. But after hearing the arrangement at the Brooklyn Academy, I had a new appreciation for the music’s depth and sweep, which can really emerge only from a full orchestra.

And in the third act, when Ms. Björfors’s circus conceit began to run out of steam, Mr. McDermott’s production reached its peak. At the front of the stage, Gandhi marched with his followers. Behind them was a barrier made from strands of tape, which seemed to blur place and time as, in the background, an actor playing King and facing away from the audience mimed the delivery of an impassioned speech.

That tableau, combined with the message of Krishna appearing “age after age,” suggests that there is a fourth act to be written, a new leader to take up the mantle. But who?

Follow Joshua Barone on Twitter: @joshbarone.

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