A Sanskrit libretto, a cackling chorus and a 20 minute soliloquy 'Live in HD' is 'not better, but usefully different'

Fifteen years ago sending an email was still a novelty for most people. Last Saturday evening, at the Omniplex Dundonald, a live performance of Philip Glass's Satyagraha (The Force of Truth) was beamed in by satellite, in high definition from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City. Such is the dizzying rate of progress in this dizziest of technological eras.

Glass's work was also something of a mould-breaker when first performed in 1980. It set scenes from the early, South African period of the life of Mahatma Gandhi to a libretto in Sanskrit, only part of which the composer allowed to be translated onto backdrop projections.

Musically Satyagraha applied the composer's infamous minimalist techniques, with their obsessive, though often strongly lyrical repetitions of rhythmic and melodic figurations to the broad, expansive scale of traditional grand opera. The result was a four-hour evening with two intervals.

All opera is meant to be seen, of course, but some shows need the visual element more than others. Satyagraha is definitely one of them. The music is frequently more akin to a film accompaniment than a traditional operatic score. It needs stage images to complement it and sustain attention over the lengthy time-span required for a complete performance.

All of which makes Satyagraha an ideal candidate for full-blown telecast treatment. It certainly looked stunning on the big screen at Dundonald. HD close-ups revealed an intensity of facial and physical expression in characters normally glimpsed from a considerable distance in the opera house.

This was especially important in scenes which were essentially static, such as the sextet beginning Act Three. Here the close-cuts and side-angles achieved by the cameras communicated the impassioned concentration of the singers in a way that even the finest seats in the opera house couldn’t.

A similar intensification of effect occurred in the sinister, cackling chorus of 'devilish folk' which launches Act Two, where Gandhi is vilified on his return to Durban after speaking about the settlers’ plight in his native India. The mechanistic precision of the excellent Met chorus in Glass’s deliberately depersonalised writing was all the more unsettling in tight focus, rather than viewed from a distance.

Tenor Richard Croft gave a dignified, hugely eloquent portrayal of Gandhi, holding the stage unwaveringly throughout the rapt, twenty-minute soliloquy which ends the opera. Sensitive cross-editing between Croft and the actor playing a speech-giving Martin Luther King on a raised pedestal above him movingly highlighted the direct line of ideological causality between Gandhi and those inspired by his pioneering example.

This was the fiftieth telecast made by the Met in its ‘Live in HD’ series, and had all the trade-mark add-ons which make it such an invaluable way to experience great opera productions. Informative spoken introductions preceded each act; there were live interviews with singers and members of the production team, a short historical film about Gandhi, and two conversations with Philip Glass himself, who attended the New York matinee in person.

So is ‘Live in HD’ a better way of seeing opera than actually going to the opera house? Not better, I’d say, just usefully different. In particular, in the way that it applies techniques from film and live broadcast to bypass the physical and emotional constraints of proscenium arch stagings which can easily hem shows in dramatically at the theatre.

Six more operas will be broadcast live from the Met this current season – Handel’s Rodelinda, Gounod’s Faust, Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Verdi’s Ernani, Massenet’s Manon, and Verdi’s La Traviata.

Go to the Live in HD website for further details.