Opera Review: Peace and Truth in Mid-Air
Satyagraha returns to Brooklyn Academy of Music.

by Paul J. Pelkonen

  • Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Once every few seasons, an opera production emerges that enables this writer to see the art form in an entirely new light. This year, that production is Satyagraha by Philip Glass, which returned to the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week. (BAM NextWave was the sight of the first New York performances of this opera in 1981.) This staging brings Philip Glass' operatic retelling of the early years of Mahatma Gandhi to a literal circus, combining singing, dance, aerialism and other feats to make this cool, cerebral opera into a warm and intimate experience.

The choice of the BAM Harvey for this show was deliberate. The scale of the theater is perfect for the twenty-three musicians, six soloists and choir of eight to deliver Mr. Glass' profound and religious meditation on the meaning of truth, the importance of peace and the challenges of a path of passive resistance. Gandhi remains the central figure of the story but he is here split into two figures:  tenor Leif Arun-Solen and circus artist Alexander Weibel Weibel. The former doing all the singing and the latter performing astonishing physical feats.

Mr. Arun-Solen sang the role of the Mahatma with a high, clear tenor that moved nimbly over the stripped-down orchestra under the baton of Matthew Wood. As he peered out through his round glasses, the singer conveyed that sense of grounding and peace through his movement and gesture, becoming the focal point whenever he was onstage. This portrayal of Gandhi follows his path from involved attorney in South Africa to the famous figure of later life, clad in homespun dhoti and sandals, his only adornment the trademark mustache. (It should be noted that the events of Satyagraha follow Gandhi's life up until 1913. His decision to adapt traditional attire came in 1921.)

Mr. Weibel Weibel faced even more difficult tasks. He traversed the empty open spaces of the acting area by wire, often anchored by nothing more than the muscles of one of his fellow performers. He balanced, shuffle-stepping on a rolling ball of red twine while adding the voice of his violin to the orchestra. He mounted a slackwire, trapped in its middle, reflective of Gandhi's battles against the oppressive South African colonial government and inability to make progress. And he, and the rest of the cast and circus artists performed the most stunning moment of the show together, stepping barefoot, like fakirs upon a long bed of broken glass at the close of the first act.

These two Gandhis were supported by a small but sturdy cast. Leading among these were bass Johan Schinkler, mezzo Karolina Blixt and soprano Hanna Fritzon, who moved in and out of multiple characters in Gandhi's life some on higher planes of existence. The circus artists were led by Sarah Lett, whose exertions on the spinning Cyr wheel were outdone only by her flight in aerial silks, high above the stage. (She was anchored at all times by one of the strongmen, high on a ladder.) Astonishing images appeared: a shaggy mound of twine which birthed a dancer into the world, a spinning, suspended basket which wove rope, powered by Mr. Weibel Weibel on a unicycle, and another aerialist, suspended inside a flying rubber ball who seemed to hatch again and again like a baby bird being born.

This staging is a collaboration between two Swedish directors: Mellika Melouani Melani of Folkoperan and Tilde Björfors of Cirkus Cirkör. Together, their companies combine to create a series of indelible aural and visual images, creating previously unknown correlations between this opera and the gyrations, conflagrations and spectacle that is the circus' stock in trade. Juggling, aerial silks, tumbling and acts of balancing and strength bring the text of Satyagraha (which is drawn from the Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita) closer to the material.

The most astonishing image was the final tableau. A wooden, coffin-like structure that had been used as a kind of flying stage throughout the show was divided into three parts and fixed in place to make a wheel. This enormous apparatus was then used to spin thread as the singers sang the opera's Act III "Evening Song." Mr. Arun-Solen held the spindle. Ms. Blixt fed the rope. And the other singers and acrobats powered the wheel by hand, turning its spokes as they walked in a circle on the stage. As this happened, other singers braided, knotted and bent cotton rope from high above the audience. We sat, immersed in the work and the ritual, the music and words bringing the spark of conscience to flame as the crescendos rose and rose. In this moment, Mr. Glass' opera achieved a kind of enlightenment, the kind one does not always find in the opera house.


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