Gandhi and Glass, Shakespeare and Prokofiev brought to life

saty_37a0870_p.jpgThe men of the LA Opera Chorus in "Satyagraha." Photo: Cory Weaver.

Philip Glass once made an admission that could come only from a humble composer: "The smartest thing I ever did was finding collaborators who are smarter than me."

And who knows? This best-known minimalist just might not have won so much acclaim without the likes of that ultimate theater man Robert Wilson who, with Glass, created the now-legendary 1976 "Einstein on the Beach," gloriously presented here a few years ago.

At any rate, it's his brand of famously simplified music that has enlivened countless stage and opera ventures -- ballets like Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," early experimental films like "Koyaanisqatsi," feature movies. You name the medium. He's written music for it, as well as purely instrumental works.

If you caught his epic bio-opera on Gandhi, "Satyagraha," courtesy of LA Opera at the Music Center Pavilion, you know it's quite a show. If not, wait for the return...

Meanwhile, heed this astute theater person's remark: "It's all a matter of who does what how." Here, Glass and his collaborators -- the British team of Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Paul Constable -- made a bit of meticulous magic out of the work.

Its arresting stage pictures, painted in burnished hues, are extravagantly sophisticated and rife with understandable symbolism, allowing the characters to move about in slow processional style à la Robert Wilson. Yet the whole thing magnetizes with the gravity of Gandhi's morality message. And it follows his journey as a London law graduate to South Africa where he becomes a newspaperman spreading his gospel of selfless action and civil disobedience, physically leading the call and risking his own life in the process.

Considering that there are no titles, only English texts that intermittently appear on the corrugated semi-circular walls declaiming Gandhi's humanist philosophy, and that the singers' words are in Sanskrit, there's not exactly a story line. It's the Bhagavad Gita that functions as a primer for his treatise on peaceful protest.

But the staging tells the narrative. In one scene hangers descend picturesquely from on high so that the characters can remove and place their jackets on them, signifying Gandhi's followers taking a social resistance oath. In another, giant papier-maché puppets suggest an awesome foe.

It would be impossible to separate Glass's score from the dramaturgy, so hand-in-glove is the fit -- with its embroidery of arpeggios and scales spun out in mystical, glistening array and variation. There's even a chorus of European men hiccupping in staccato laughs, with exact orchestral complement, to show their open ridicule of Gandhi's ideas.

Heroic undergirding from Grant Gershon, leading his pit band and coordinating the stage business, brings the performance to rare artistic heights. So does the whole cast excel. I can't imagine a better Gandhi than Sean Panikkar, a tenor of luminous beauty, especially as he sings the final aria, in all its variously weighted increments of lyricism. In fact, it reminded me of the final "ewig... ewig" (forever), the mantra from Mahler's "Das Lied."

But what an irony it was, a few nights later at Disney Hall, to witness a theatrical whole -- Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" -- broken apart. What we heard, courtesy of Gustavo Dudamel and his LA Philharmonic, was a stellar exposition of the score.

The love music has never sounded more sumptuous to me, nor the thumping march more insistent, nor its shards of grief, nor its slenderest ecstasies as illuminating. I've hardly ever heard such a detailed, evocative account -- a hundred virtuosos illuminating each moment, the sweep and ecstasy of this doomed couple, the drama of murderous intrigue.

Oh, sure, major ballet companies' orchestras rise to the occasion under conductors who typically feast on this music. (The Bolshoi, Kirov, Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Stuttgart et al.) And yes, they know it's arguably the most integral ballet score ever written.

All the more reason to place it where it belongs, on center stage, where Shakespeare's tragedy in this dance-theater form itself, must live. To do otherwise is like offering the audience an instrumental version of opera. "Traviata" without voices, anyone?

But what we saw were only occasional nuggets of interjected choreography danced out on the meager stage apron, under bright lights, with no scene-setting, and also filmed backstage and environs -- an ad hoc recipe that need not even have intimated this or any story, just dancers racing around practice rooms, hallways, locker areas, etc.

Every stellar choreographer, starting with Lavrovsky (who collaborated scene-by-scene with the composer in creating the work) has been irresistibly drawn to the ballet: John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan et al. Who would blame them? No other score so masterfully telegraphs the narrative. It's almost impossible to hear the music without the indelible dance motifs flashing through the brain.

Still, Benjamin Millepied, in charge of the dance sequences, did his cooperative best with limited stage ops. His dancers, Mario Gonzalez and Aaron Carr, a true-to-our-time Romeo and Julien (a wag called them Romeo and Joe) frolicked like young boys, if not the ecstatic couple that the balcony scene music elucidates, as the camera followed them to Disney's garden.

But, by some miracle, they did pull off a most moving finale on that un-atmospheric stage apron: the couple's tragically innocent death, with their expressionist depiction, even in this four-sided hall without a proscenium.

As to this whole strategy, it's easy to see that Philharmonic meisters are thinking up ways to expand audience interest, to break away from traditional concert format. The idea is that adding dance or theater or film or multi-media will boost the box office and attract new subscribers. But there will always be those who like their symphonic fare as the respective composers intended, straight and undiluted. (Just as a great, full-length ballet requires the ballet itself to be stage central.)

And that's exactly what Andrew Norman's new piece proved, besides being presented as its straight self. No folderol needed for his "Sustain." You will not want any distraction from its aura. And you will never confuse it with any other work, so distinctive is it -- a masterly incorporation of instruments, sometimes isolating a single one, that produces a gorgeously delicate, otherworldly sound cloud, one that ever so gradually shifts to suggest impermanence and fragmentation. Entrancing. We need to hear it again.

What we saw again, though, was also a plus -- speaking of LA Ballet's revival of "Western Symphony"(1954). Looked at today, Balanchine's jokey yet endearing little exercise in cowboy kitsch, with dance hall girlies as a parody feature and ending in a dizzying riff of ensemble maneuvers, warms the heart. Just when the heart needs warming.

But it's good to be reminded of how versatile LAB is and nothing could advance that idea as well as Aszure Barton's "Les Chambres des Jacques," an intriguing mating game that explores the international flavors of everything from bawdy baroque to hayseed awkwardness. The company's dancers glory in those body innuendos that portend familiarity with the innermost id, unabashedly, superbly. Do not ever assume that classical training -- with its upright torsos, elongated necks and pointed toes -- cancels out all contemporary manner of human awareness.

1-Bulle_Sargsyan_Alejandro_Cerrudo-ModernMoves.jpgBianca Bulle and Tigran Sargsyan of LA Ballet. Photo by Nathaniel Solis.

Nor should we think that a soprano who ventures away from the opera stage cannot find her own idiosyncratic way to an audience used to the standard recital mode: face front, sing groups of songs, end with lots of beloved arias as encores.

Well, Sonya Yoncheva, in the Broad Stage's continuing celebrity opera series, took a different path. The Bulgarian soprano, an upcoming star at the Met and other A-circuit houses, made her entrances from the wings while singing, sometimes rattling a tambourine on the way, often hip-switching across stage and even caressing (flirting with) a seated orchestra violinist.

There were several arias from Massenet and Puccini operas, stunningly sung. But at the end she merely repeated two baroque items from the printed program as encores, accepted her armsful of flowers, bowed graciously and threw kisses. A new kind of diva.

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