glass notes
Echoes of Things Past… (updated)

A review of Satyagraha out in Britain's Telegraph this morning continues a now 30 year old trend of simultaneously praising Philip Glass' operas but only through compliments to the poor people who are forced to listen to the rubbish music. The Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen says:

Without doubt,
it ranks as one of the most fantastically beautiful spectacles ever
presented on this stage, charged with a poetic richness of imagination that
the music so wretchedly lacks. 

continuting with…

All praise, however, to a sterling and committed cast (led by Alan Oke as the
Mahatma), conductor (Stuart Stratford) and orchestra, who do a brilliant job
of counting the bars and keeping their composure.

In reviewing the music Christiansen says:

..I am constitutionally allergic to the spiritualised aesthetics behind Satyagraha…  Others seem to find that Glass’s eternity of arpeggiated sequences, thin
harmonies and incantatory repetitions elevates them to the transcendental
sublime: I sit there glancing at my watch and wondering what I’ll have for

This production of Satyagraha was presented at the English National Opera in 2007, before making its way to the Met Opera in New York in 2008. In London, it set box office records to almost everyone's surprise. The music is and will always be the opera's greatest virtue. This escapes Mr. Christiansen. The notion that these poor saps who are forced to work with Glass' "thin harmonies" were actually inspired by the music itself to create 'this fantastically beautiful spectacle' is precisely the point; the greatest music of all time, be it for the opera house or the concert hall, invites generation after generation to discover and re-interpret.

It may be a frustrating prospect to Glass' detractors, but Satyagraha is not a new work and it has been clearly established in the repertory having been done over the last three decades in New York (multiple times), Seattle Opera, San Francisco, Chicago Lyric Opera, and at houses across Europe.

Furthermore, this cowardly cop-out of complimenting the practitioners of the work rather than its creator must stop after a requisite amount of time. The sensational element of the New has withered away for Satyagraha in the past 30 years since its premiere.  It is not produced for novelty effect. Audiences know the music and what the opera is about, and again, to Mr. Christiansen's great frustration, it survives because of the combination of its musical, poetic, and dramatic merit with the fact that people are challenged and very frequently enjoy the work.

But let's not be unfair to the fantastically unoriginal Mr. Christiansen, let's go back to Donal Henehan's NY Times review of New York City Opera's production of Akhnaten in 1984:

As a pageant, then, ''Akhnaten'' must depend largely on the imagination of its production. By all reports, it benefited from brilliant staging earlier this year in its world premiere in Stuttgart, West Germany, and enjoyed a triumph there.

We must take those reports on faith. There are some operas, generally of a minor sort, that can live or die for extramusical reasons. However, the truth is that the City Opera's ''Akhnaten'' staging, co-produced with the Houston Grand Opera, is a fair reflection of Mr. Glass's score and in that sense is no misrepresentation. Considered strictly as an almost primitively tonal protest against the self-defeating complexity of most contemporary music, ''Akhnaten'' may act as a tonic, if you will forgive the pun. But it is one more example of going-nowhere music, music that flutters its wings but does not try to fly.


****No more than an hour after I finished this post did yet another review come in from England's Oxford Times which further strengthened my case. It also makes me feel bad for making an example of Mr. Christiansen, when the pooint is that there are many like him, including the Oxford Times Alexandra Coghlan

Ms. Coghlan writes:

Musically, the production is exemplary. Alan Oke, returning as
Gandhi, sings with sweetness of tone and conviction, and Elena
Xanthoudakis as his secretary creates some glorious textural contrast
with her ringing soprano. In the pit conductor Stuart Stratford is a
model of precision as musical traffic warden, marshalling his orchestra
and chorus through a deliberately expressionless score that’s the
musical equivalent of running a marathon on a treadmill in a windowless

That Satyagraha is unusual and (thought-provoking) I don’t deny.
Yet something about it and the universal acclaim surrounding it makes
me suspicious. It’s not that this operatic emperor has no clothes
precisely, but rather that he is – at best – scantily clad in a
loincloth of a couple of epigrammatic philosophies and an arpeggio or
two, which can hardly be considered adequate protection against the
winter chills of a recession-bound UK. For an opera about ‘deep ideas’
Satyagraha at times demonstrates an extraordinary lack of depth.

2 thoughts on “Echoes of Things Past… (updated)”

  1. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Richard. You have very well pointed out why it is not worth reading critics’ opinions on music with which they are not familiar. History proves them to be sadly mistaken. And they often have to leave the theatre before the last act to write their review of an opening. One wonders if Henehan had heard the transcendent epilogue of Akhnaten, where the music does overwhelmingly “fly”, whether he would have written the same tripe.

  2. What’s funny is that these critic’s somehow manage to enjoy the performances regardless of the “inadequate” music. If the music is so atrocious don’t you think that it would completely ruin the show? I don’t think they’re being completely honest. My guess is that they secretly like it.

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