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Review: Los Angeles Opera's 'Satyagraha' lives up to Gandhi's ideals

Review: Los Angeles Opera's 'Satyagraha' lives up to Gandhi's ideals
Sean Panikkar as Gandhi surrounded by puppets of hostile bigwigs incensed by his nonviolent activism in South Africa in Los Angeles Opera's production of "Satyagraha" by Philip Glass. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

“Satyagraha,” the term Mohandas K. Gandhi designated for nonviolent resistance, is often translated as “truth force.” But as the title for Philip Glass’ first opera written for the forces of an opera company and finally reaching Los Angeles on Saturday night, 38 years after its premiere, in a must-see magnificent production by Los Angeles Opera in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I prefer something like “the force of truth” — with the understanding that neither force nor truth is an absolute term.

Topsy-turvy quantum physics has spent the last century revealing natural forces as ever more peculiarly relative. Then there is the notion of “truth” becoming, in our era of social media bamboozlement, more relative by the tweet.

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Glass’ opera is a portrait, more evocation than chronicle, of Gandhi’s early years as a young Indian barrister in South Africa. It covers the period from his arrival in 1893 to the New Castle March of 1913, when women in Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement organized a miners’ strike to protest South Africa’s “color bar” restricting Indian immigration and a special tax levied against Indian workers.

Like Gandhi’s Satyagraha, Glass’ “Satyagraha” began a revolutionary movement. In wake of his success with “Einstein on the Beach,” which was called an opera but was created as avant-garde music theater in collaboration with Robert Wilson, Glass was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam to make an “opera” opera for singers, chorus and orchestra.

Although it happened in the Netherlands, “Satyagraha” essentially reformed the whole concept of what American opera could be. It propelled Minimalism into a tributary of the mainstream and inspired a new generation of composers to take a fresh look at opera.

Even so, “Satyagraha” isn’t exactly traditional opera. Constance DeJong’s libretto, written in collaboration with Glass, is a singular collage of lines taken from the “Bhagavad-Gita.” Glass set the text in the original Sanskrit of the ancient Indian account of a mythical battle and the god Krishna’s meditation on the qualities of action, duty, virtue and the meaning of time.

The mythological Indian battlefield, then, becomes a South African plain. Krishna’s religious, political and moral concerns are those of the historical characters in Gandhi’s life, as we see him standing up to authority and propagating his principles of passive resistance through the newspaper he began, Indian Opinion. Each of the three acts has a political and moral theme. A great figure — Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — looms over each.

L.A. Opera has imported a production created at English National Opera by the quirky British team of director Phelim McDermott and designer Julian Crouch, who have a love for puppetry, idiosyncratic mechanical devices, video and improbable materials turned into living sculpture. The Metropolitan Opera brought the production to New York a few years ago, and it was one of the finest things the company had done in modern times. At L.A. Opera, it is better still and a landmark for the company.

The stage is used as ritualistic space. Funky fabricated giant puppets come out of nowhere and disappear so quickly that you wonder whether you saw or imagined them. Newspapers are employed with a fluidity that makes newsprint appear downright protoplasmic (if this is a ploy to entice superlatives from ink-stained critics, it works wonders).

L.A. Opera takes profound care with this production. Tony Simpson expertly reproduces Paule Constable’s original lighting design. The video projections of title and graphic designs by 59 Productions work perfectly. The movement of principals, chorus and “skills ensemble” is exquisite.

Musically, though, is where this “Satyagraha” matters most. Sean Panikkar is a Gandhi firm of voice and full of charisma. There is nothing otherworldly or mystical about him. When he sings, force is force and truth sounds the way truth should sound. He, as does all the cast and, extraordinarily, the terrific chorus, enunciates the Sanskrit text with crisp, believable clarity.

He is joined by an outstanding cast that includes J’Nai Bridges, gorgeously resonant as Gandhi’s wife, Kasturbai; and Patrick Blackwell as an imposing Krishna; along with the ensemble of Gandhi’s coworkers, friends and the odd figure from the “Bhagavad-Gita” portrayed by performers including Morris Robinson, Michael J. Hawk, Erica Petrocelli, So Young Park, Theo Hoffman and Niru Liu.

Clarity reaches the orchestra as well, which, conducted by Grant Gershon, is mellow yet precise. Gershon, who is the real hero of this “Satyagraha,” makes Glass’ trademark repetitions sizzle while at the same time creating broad lyric arches.

Those repetitions are seldom precise; something — a pitch, a beat — barely perceptible is always added or subtracted. The sensation, if done right, is of the ground under your feet feeling solid, but somewhere buried deep in your subconscious, you know you are walking on a geological fault.

This is where the relativity of force and truth comes in. Long ago, Gandhi identified problem and solution. He found persuasive followers. We get it. And even so, every issue raised in “Satyagraha” — be it racism, a sense of duty, the protest of those “maddened by pride and hypocrisy,” who “have no other aim than to satisfy their pleasure, convinced that is all” — overwhelm the world we know.

In the last scene of “Satyagraha,” night has fallen. Alone onstage, Gandhi channels Krishna’s promise to return to Earth in “visible shape and move a man with men for the protection of good” whenever “righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises.” A melodic line as beautiful as anything Glass has written repeats again and again and again. Once the curtain falls, it remains to haunt your inner ear.

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‘Satyagraha’

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1 and 8; 2 p.m. Nov. 4 and 11

Price: $21-$324 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org

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