Last April, I went to London to see the English National Opera's production of Satyagraha, the opera about MK Gandhi, by American composer Philip Glass. A year later, that very same ENO production has reached The Metropolitan Opera where I got a chance to see it on Friday.
Visually, very little has changed from London, although the dimensions of the Metropolitan stage are much bigger than those of the London Colosseum. Last month when I attended one of the MET's performances of Peter Grimes I happened to sit next to the puppeteers who had come from the UK in order to work on Satyagraha. Basically, they informed me that indeed very little had changed with the production, although they had had a longer rehearsal period at the MET. Also, the bigger dimensions of the MET's stage allowed them to fly the puppets much higher than in London
Overall, the New York performance was tighter musically than London's. In the second act, the MET chorus was as precise as a metronome as they sang an unbelievably difficult four-square section repeating the syllable "ha" over and over again. Regretfully, last year in London, the ENO chorus crumbled during this section.
The focus of the evening in any performance of Satyagraha is the tenor singing the role of Gandhi. Richard Croft sang a beautiful performance on Friday. From my seat in the second row there was no doubt that he was wholly immersed in his character. Twice, however, he was forced to step out of character and cover his mouth when he sneezed twice. I had never seen this happen to a singer on stage, but he dealt with it as silently and discreetly as possible. So good, in fact, that I don't think anybody noticed beyond the first few rows.
They say that nobody comes out of a modern opera humming the tunes -- not true! I dare anyone to come out of a performance of Satyagraha and not intone in your head, or outright hum or sing the ascending phrygian scale that Gandhi repeatedly intones over and over again in the last scene of Act III. That incredible restful line is one of the most serene moments in opera -- old or new.
It was wonderful to revisit Satyagraha on this side of the ocean. Although there was something special about experiencing an opera about Gandhi in England, the MET production this year was the culmination of the journey that started last year at the ENO.