Philip Glass (b. 1937) should already be a familiar name to anyone with an interest in films. He has written many highly distinctive film scores, among them The Hours, Kundun Candyman and The Secret Agent. He has also worked closely with several directors to compose scores that have heavily influenced the narrative structure of their films. It’s hard to imagine Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi or Paul Schrader’s Mishima having the same impact without Glass’s swirling keyboard rhythms. In recent years he has composed scores and operas to be played live alongside screenings of classic films like Tod Browning’s Dracula and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. Outside of his film work, Philip Glass is one of the foremost, prolific and experimental modern classical composers.
Satyagraha was the second in a trilogy of operas he composed based on the lives of famous figures whose contribution to science, politics and religion have shaped the modern world we live in. The first, Einstein On The Beach (1976) a 5 hour minimalist opera, is not the easiest of introductions to Glass. When he came to write Akhnaten (1984), the structure of the opera and instrumentation used by the orchestra was much more conventional. Personally, I find Satyagraha (1980), composed in that period between experimental and relatively more traditional opera, to be among the most original and interesting of all his works.
Satyagraha is based on key events in the life of Mohandas Gandhi. It has little in common with a traditional opera. There is no ‘plot’ as such – rather key scenes in Gandhi’s life are represented alongside a Sanskrit libretto, written by Glass and Constance De Jong, based on a sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi’s inspiration for his own treatise on passive resistance and civil disobedience, Satyagraha – ‘Dedication to the truth’. The orchestration is also unusual. With its long repetitive rhythms rolled out on strings, woodwind and electric organ the opera is particularly demanding on the musicians. You can actually hear the woodwind players struggling to get a breath throughout the performance. Glass thinks he has learnt much about writing for the voice since this early opera but I much prefer his work here. In Satyagraha he uses the voice as another instrument, matching the tempo and rhythm of the music. Arias, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets are all handled with great skill. The chorus work also is particularly exhilarating.
The opera was first performed in Rotterdam in 1980 and in 1981 a new production was staged in Stuttgart. This production was very successful and ran for 2 years. It is a 1983 performance of that production that is recorded here. In contrast to the minimalist approach of the music, the staging is of the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ variety. It is a particularly elaborately designed production – dancers, neon lights, television monitors, dwarves, animals – where everything is thrown into the mix and the stage is often very cluttered and packed with singers and performers. In his book ‘Opera On The Beach’ Glass recalls seeing the Stuttgart production of Satyagraha for the first time. Not knowing what to make of it he asked the stage designer, Achim Freyer, why he had chosen to stage it this way. "Because that’s the way you wrote it", a surprised Glass was told. It is a fascinating production and I think it lends itself well to the libretto and the music.
The picture presented by this Arthaus release is unfortunately very poor. It appears to be sourced from a video of a 1983 ZDF/C4 television co-production. The picture for the most part is passable, but for some reason there is a noticeable degradation in picture quality in Act II – ‘Tagore’, Scene 1. The image, presented in 4:3 shows signs of wear. There is definite tape ‘wobble’ in places, the image is soft and unfocussed, dark backgrounds are grainy and colours are washed-out. Lights flare and trails of light are visible whenever white objects move around. This television recording does not capture the event very well and fails to live up to still photographs I have seen of the Stuttgart production. It tries to capture as much of the production as possible by using frequent long shots, but the poor definition of the video means that all we can see under the bright stage lights are a blur where the performers should be.
The music is PCM stereo, but this is rendered meaningless because of the poor quality of the source. The performance of the orchestra itself seems fine, although to be honest it is hard to tell because of the poor mix. There appears to be no stereo separation that I could make out and music and instruments dip in and out of the mix. A deep bass organ appears at intervals throughout the performance to fill in parts that the string section could not play, since there are very few breaks for them in the performance. It does not blend very well in this mix. There is also quite a bit of stage noise due to the use of so many props and there being so much activity going on during the performance. The performance of the singers however is clearly excellent. Considering they have to sing long scenes in Sanskrit and have to perform in difficult circumstances – sometimes suspended from wires – the singing is strong and comes across very well.
There are no extras on the DVD. Subtitles in English are included and there are plenty of chapter stops (40) although Scene Access from the menu will only take you to the start of each of the three Acts. The accompanying booklet is of the usual high standard for an Arthaus release, providing relevant information on the composer, opera, performance and performers, although you may wonder at the discrepancy between what is supposed to be depicted on the stage and what is actually performed in this production.
This recording of Satyagraha would not be the best introduction to what I believe is one of the finest works in modern classical music. A Philip Glass opera calls out for picture, sound and features that the DVD format can provide. (A recent Glass opera, Monsters Of Grace, performed with 3-D projections where the entire audience has to wear special glasses, would be stunning on DVD). I couldn’t recommend this DVD to anyone who is not already familiar with the opera. However since the Stuttgart production itself is so unique and this TV recording is probably the only source Arthaus have access to, the DVD has some value as a document of a rare production of the opera. Due to the demands the opera places on the orchestra and the singers and its limited appeal compared to another La Traviata or Marriage of Figaro, you are unlikely to see it performed at your local theatre or opera house or even at Covent Garden anytime soon. In the end, however it is disappointing and an expensive purchase for such poor quality video.