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On “Satyagraha”

On "Satyagraha"

It’s been a long time since I went to an opera concert and this was the first time I saw one live in a movie theater. This past Saturday, “Satyagraha” by Philip Glass was transmitted in local theaters in many cities, directly from The Metropolitan Opera through The Met: Live in HD series and, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Apart from already knowing that I was about to watch one of the greatest Glass operas expecting at least something superb… this concert totally exceeded my expectations.

Composed in the late 1970s, Satyagraha is based on the story of a great man and leader of the oppressed, Mahatma Gandhi, one of Glass’s idols. It deals with his early years in South Africa and his position as a non-violent protester. Unless you already know about Gandhi’s historical path, the play doesn’t make it an easy job to guess, since there were no subtitles and all the opera was sung in Sanskirt while a fantastic group of performing arts – The Skills Ensemble – were building up surreal imagery that projects Glass’s music and giving life to jaw-dropping paper puppets of Hindu mythical creatures with many arms and representing characters such as Tolstoy and Martin Luther King [who looked curiously like Obama]. Although, not directly related to the lyrics’ meaning, you could easily get hypnotized by the singers’ chants. Unfortunately the protagonist tenor, Richard Croft, premiering in his role as Gandhi, couldn’t reach (or even get close to) the magnificence of Douglas Perry’s voice, who’s well known from the recorded version. Luckily the rest of the cast was brilliant and thankfully the mise-en-scene did not suffer from the often-heard the “too much money makes it impressive but it’s not creatively necessary” kind of criticism.
Satyagraha is part of Glass’s Portrait Trilogy, operas dedicated to world changers, like Akhnathen or Einstein, with his landmark opera Einstein on the Beach, and it totally reflects the minimalistic style he became famous for with compositions like Glassworks or the monumental Koyaanisqatsi that made the floor crumble under our feet with its appearance in Godfrey Reggio’s film, rightly famous as much for Glass’s music as for the film itself. And that’s what this post happily leads me to – Glass’s natural genius and expertise to compose such sumptuous film scores like Scorsese’s Kundun, which earned Glass his first Academy Award nomination; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or, one of my favorites, The Hours, one of the few that made me well up in tears.
Expect some other posts referring to other composers with a similar interest in cinema, since from my point of view, a good soundtrack is half the groundwork of a great movie (it doesn’t always apply, but…). Take those posts as reminders and, if you haven’t seen all those films and haven’t listened to all those soundtracks, you should totally give them a try.

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