Los Angeles Review by Willard Manus

Philip Glass has long been attracted to non-Western music, dating back forty years to when he worked with Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar on the film score for “Chappaqua.” That experienceinspired him to write an opera about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, SATYAGRAHA. First performed in 2007 by the English National Opera in a co-production with The Met, SATYAGRAHA has now been revived by Los Angeles Opera in a magnificent and memorable production.
Directed and designed by ENO’s Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, conducted by Grant Gershon, SATYAGRAHA is a stunningly original and daring work. Sung in Sanskrit with minimal English titles–-the text is comprised of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita (compiled by Constance DeJong)–the opera focuses on Gandhi’s formative years, when he was a young lawyer in South Africa, circa 1893-1913. His social consciousness was triggered when he arrived
in that country and had a confrontation with railway police, who booted him from a “white people’s” compartment because of his dark skin.

Instead of being cowed, Gandhi then decided to devote his life to the struggle against racism, exploitation and injustice. His Satyagraha movement–-it translates as “truth force”–was based on ethical and non-violent principles. Gandhi and his followers took on the powers-that-be in South Africa, forming communities, demonstrating against apartheid, fighting for change. Essential to
their way of life was an emphasis on self-reliance, a belief in goodness and righteousness.
Glass plays with time in his opera: an Act One scene flashes back to the mythic setting of the Bhagavad-Gita, when the warrior Arjuna is poised for battle, only to be visited by the ghost of the god Krishna, who sings the praises of faith and moral duty.

All of this is conveyed without dialogue. The characters sing without stop, backed by the LA Opera chorus, and of course driven relentlessly by Glass’ remarkable score, with its melodic ideas ideas pulsing away, weaving patterns of repetitive, hypnotic sound.

The stagecraft is just as compelling: grotesque puppets (the ruling class) appear and disappear, characters suddenly take flight, streams of newsprint cris-cross, then twist into strange shapes. Lights, sets, costumes also contribute to the otherworldly look of the opera, though its roots go deep into the soil of mankind’s hopes and dreams for a decent life.

Each of the three acts has a guardian spirit: Tolstoy, Tagore and Martin Luther King, all of them proponents of non-violence, self-reliance and civil rights. We see them but don’t hear them; the opera is sung by nine characters, led by Gandhi (the pure-voiced Sean Pannikar) with support from his secretary (So Young Park), two Indian co-workers ((Erica Petrocelli and Morris Robinson), his wife (J’Nai Bridges), and a European co-worker (Theo Hoffman). The chorus and a 12-person “skill ensemble” also help to transform the LA Opera stage into an eerily beautiful and deeply moving place.