OPERA REVIEW : San Francisco Opera Offers ‘Satyagraha’

Times Music Writer

Nine years after its world premiere in Rotterdam, and following U.S. stagings in New York, Chicago and Seattle, Philip Glass’ controversial and haunting “Satyagraha” finally reached California this week, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.

David Pountney’s original production (re-staged here by Harry Silverstein) and Robert Israel’s designs occupy the War Memorial Opera House handsomely. The performance, conducted once again by Bruce Ferden, puts across Glass’ extended meditation on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi in an aura of compelling visual and musical images.

Though written for conventional, non-amplified musical forces--soloists, a large chorus and an orchestra without brass or percussion--Glass’ second opera eschews the standard operatic devices of arias, duets and set pieces.


Each of the seven scenes is musically self-contained and usually constructed as a self-repeating passacaglia. With shifts of accent and new texts, each piece accumulates tension or force as it proceeds. The description is simple; in practice, the work unfolds as emotionally colorful and harmonically varied.

Glass’ critics say his palate is limited and his musical materials minimal. Perhaps so, yet the contrasts in this three-act, three-hour opera are many, and effective. In a score in which endless repetition can occur within small sections, the larger structures achieve integrity and uniqueness through separateness of thought and strict architectonic boundaries.

For example: The opening scene, wherein the modality of restless F-minor is explored thoroughly, gives way to an extended section (the Farm Scene) probing gentle C-major. When the act moves on to its finale, the brightness of the B-flat scale bursts forth freshly. Armed with no more than a capsule summary of the action of each scene, the observer finds the actual dramatic content in the interaction between words and notes--the vowel-rich, warm and open Sanskrit language combined with Glass’ grateful vocal lines.

No supertitles were used at this performance. Nor were any needed.

This set of five performances--(the run ends on Sunday) brings together veterans of the world premiere with enthusiastic local forces.

On Monday night, Ferden conducted a pointed but spacious musical performance, savoring details but keeping the longer line in view. His energetic orchestra played keenly, yet never covered the singers. The 61-voice chorus sang and moved gamely, though vocally it was undernourished and poorly blended.

The principals sounded tired. But they sang spiritedly. Douglas Perry, who created the role of Gandhi in 1980, still explores its beauties with sensitivity and grace. He was seconded neatly by the male soloists: LeRoy Villanueva, Dale Travis, Victor Ledbetter and Philip Skinner. The women--Claudia Cumming, Ann Panagulias, Catherine Keen and Emily Manhart--performed less resonantly, though reliably.