Satyagraha by Philip Glass. Libretto by Philip Glass and Constance De Jong. Directed and choreographed by Leigh Warren. Arrangement and music direction by Timothy Sexton. Set and costume design by Mary Moore. Lighting design by Geoff Cobham.
Performed by Leigh Warren and Dancers, The State Opera of South Australia and Adelaide Vocal Project. At the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, February 20. Season ends February 24. continued from here...
There’s a substantial tradition in Australia -- and around the world -- of inviting choreographers and those with dance training to direct operas, or at least having them assist. Robert Helpmann had a fine eye for placement and all round mise en scène. His talents were used by the Australian Opera (Alcina
and a beautiful Roméo et Juliette
) and by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (Madama Butterfly
and Le Coq d’Or
One of the most extraordinary and memorable opera productions I’ve had the privilege of seeing was a luscious and thumpingly visceral production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice
by Stefanos Lazaridis. His choreographic collaborator was Meryl Tankard, who brought with her a squad of her long-haired banshee dancers. It was a seamless collaboration.
Recently, Bessie and Bagnolet-winning choreographer Lucy Guerin had a hand in staging two small Baroque operas for Opera Australia.
Graeme Murphy did a dazzling Turandot
for the Australian Opera, around 1990, and an inexplicably bad Salome
two or three years later... which has disappeared without trace. Murphy’s Turandot
made the transition from the old company to Opera Australia and -- as of 2006 -- is looking better than ever. That’s partly to do with the acting and movement skills of the chorus and partly to do with the director engaged to rehearse the revival.
When the curtain lifted on Leigh Warren’s Satyagraha
, I thought of Helpmann -- the careful triadic placement -- and Murphy -- the vast scale and immediacy of the set -- and also of the joys of chamber opera. I thought of seeing a pair of first-rate Chamber Made Opera productions in Melbourne: The Fall of the House of Usher
in the Merlyn and Improvement: Don Leaves Linda
in the Playhouse.(Production photographs by Tony Lewis, click to enlarge)
I wondered, not for the first time, how Adelaide -- a city of a million people -- does this. Not one but two
kick-arse contemporary dance companies. A bantam-weight opera company that has pulled off not one but two
Ring Cycles, complete. A city with not one but two
of the world’s great arts festivals. Spoilt, no?
And, really, the only trade-off here was the size of the musical ensemble and the absence of acoustic instruments. The low opening arpeggios (played by Carolyn Lam on the Cavinova) were deliberate rather than slow but they were a gentle introduction to the complexities -- the shift and overlap -- of the music.
I’ve gotta say, Leigh Warren’s choreography (on his own dancers) was far less impressive and dramatically assured than his simple but strikingly effective placement of the singers. Now, I didn’t see Warren’s split-in-half production of Einstein on the Beach
, performed over two years, but I did see -- and was mightily impressed by -- his first opera production... another Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten
is a more orthodox opera production -- with substantially less emphasis on dance -- nevertheless I was surprised that choreography was so far down the list of highlights.
The other reservation I have about Warren’s production -- and it’s an issue which will challenge any opera director -- is about his use of the chorus. Most opera choruses -- and Opera Australia’s chorus is a shining exception -- are crap when it comes to acting and moving.
There’s a fundamental trade-off that has to be made between what needs to be done and what can be done, what’s doable and what’s worth doing.
Last year’s revival of Turandot was so brilliant -- better than previous productions -- because chorus members were willing and able to put their bodies on the line. To bend and swirl and flock.
Former dancer Lindy Hume -- currently artistic director of the Perth International Arts Festival -- has a knack of wrangling a chorus in a crowd scene no matter how inexperienced the chorus. Caroline Stacey is another.
This particular chorus -- the estimable Adelaide Vocal Project -- sang their hearts out for Warren. (In Sanskrit!) They got down on hands and knees and scuttled uphill -- backwards -- like insects for him. But, to be blunt, they were best when they stood and delivered... or sat and delivered.
So, two things: they couldn’t do well what Warren asked of them; and, to be blunt, it wasn’t really worth doing in the first place. Not even Warren’s dancers -- tall, lithe, skilled -- could make this tizzy choreography look good. It looked imposed on the drama, not a distillation of it.
True, I didn’t get much of it. But the bits I did get looked dinky and artificial. The wiggling Indian heads was barely forgivable. The cross-wrist clenched-fist ‘freedom’ gesture of the ANC was an odd inclusion too. With all due respect to the ANC, they aren’t exactly paragons of non-violent resistance! (‘Satyagraha’ is normally translated as passive resistance. But, literally, it’s truth force.)
In the pivotal scene in which Gandhi is hassled by a crowd on his return to India -- where an English woman fends off the mob with her parasol -- Warren has a buck each way. First up, Warren’s dancers play the attackers. Moments later they are his shield. Though this is dramatically awkward, this is the one scene in the opera where the dancers interact effectively with the singers, en masse.
It’s an effective scene for other reasons, too. Musically and operatically. For one, the woman who plays Mrs Alexander, Mary-Ann van der Hoek, has a stunning alto. It’s as if she comes to the rescue armed only with her vocal cords! Warren also manages to make explicit what is buried in the words and score. It’s as easy for Mrs Alexander to protect Gandhi from violence as it is to protect him from the sun’s rays. He is protected by the force of truth.
The final scene of the opera has the best and most dancerly choreography: a duet. There, Gandhi interacts with the dancing god and goddess.
Musically, and vocally, this production is a triumph. Warren can even take some of the credit for that. Placing seven of the men in the right hand aisle at the start of the second act was anything but a gimmick. The spatial spread of the voices allowed us to glimpse the architecture and dynamism of the music.
On the downside, there is a pervasive mock-religiosity in much of the posturing. (I can’t bring myself to call it acting!) At its worst, it’s reminiscent of a bad production of The Magic Flute.
N.B. The publicity image, top, is by Randall Calbert.
Labels: Adelaide, Adelaide Vocal Project, dance, Graeme Murphy, Leigh Warren, Lucy Guerin, Meryl Tankard, opera, Opera Australia, Philip Glass, Robert Helpmann, State Opera of South Australia