Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gateway drugs

Another of my posts is up on Thirteen's SundayArts blog; check it out here. This time around, I go on about "gateway art," ie the kind of stuff you start with if you want to dip your toes into unchartered waters.

I'm not sure if Philip Glass' Satyagraha—a 1980 opera about Gandhi's early years—qualifies, though I did see a couple of children at yesterday's performance at the Met. I admit I'd picked a matinee because the work is around four hours and frankly I was afraid I might struggle to stay awake toward the end. I'm not proud, but there it is.

Lo and behold, the last half-hour was indeed a trial. Which maybe was just the point, I don't know. (Gandhi endured so much more than four hours in a velvet seat, right? Oh jeez, what a stupid argument this is.) By then, even director Phelim McDermott and designer Julian Crouch—who for the previous three hours had covered up the score's paucity with fantastic visuals—seemed to have given up. Everything ground to a stand still on stage, except for Glass's maddening music, which kept going on and on and on and round and round and round. The kids looked remarkably sprightly by the end. Dickens was right: children are incredibly resilient!

Anyway, I find Glass rather overrated, prone as he is to dimestore spirituality and wishy-washy sentimentality, and Satyagraha did nothing to change my mind. But the production is worth seeing for the visual component alone—though of course you're not meant to say that about an opera.

It's not a surprise—but is still depressing—that the most imaginative new stagings at the Met have been British imports (Satyagraha and Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly). The three big American directors (Bartlett Sher, Mary Zimmerman and Jack O'Brien) to make the transition from theater to the Met have ranged from merely inoffensive to duds. Not to say that the Brits are beyond reproach: John Doyle's lame Peter Grimes + his current A Catered Affair on Broadway—girl, don't get me started on that one!—indicate that his genius Sweeney Todd was a fluke. But American directors cannot seem to come up with any conceptually inventive stagings. It's like these doofuses (doofi?) have just discovered projections. People here may mock the extreme Regietheater experiments found in continental Europe, but at this point I'd kill for anything resembling some kind of directorial viewpoint on New York stages.

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