"Satyagraha," Philip Glass' at times magical _ and at times maddening _ meditation on the early career of Gandhi, is back at the Metropolitan Opera where it enjoyed a triumphant run three years ago.
Whatever one's reservations about the musical side of things, this is a production that should be seen for the brilliance of the staging by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch.
Friday night's revival featured most of the same cast as in 2008, including the sweet-voiced tenor Richard Croft as an eloquent Gandhi and soprano Rachelle Durkin as his stalwart secretary. Dante Anzolini, a frequent Glass collaborator, was again the conductor.
More oratorio than opera, "Satyagraha" depicts episodes from Gandhi's time in South Africa during the years 1896 to 1913 as a young lawyer protesting British tyranny. But it defies expectations of traditional plot or chronology: Instead of following a straightforward narrative, we glimpse moments from his life frozen in front of our eyes.
The libretto, adapted by Constance DeJong from the Bhagavad Gita, is sung in the original Sanskrit. The title, too, is Sanskrit, roughly translated as "truth force," the term Gandhi used to describe his movement of non-violent resistance.
This distancing of the audience from the words is deliberate. As Glass says in a program note, "without an understandable text to contend with ... the weight of `meaning' would then be thrown onto the music, the designs and the stage action."
The music that carries this weight is frequently ravishing. Glass makes heavy use of arpeggios and other musical structures which play over and over in the orchestra _ with gradually emerging variations _ while soloists or chorus repeat their vocal lines.
At its best, the repetitions become hallucinatory, slowing down and stretching time. It's a little like what Wagner achieved in "Parsifal" _ a comparison that comes to mind in the closing moments of the opera, when Gandhi repeatedly sings the same ascending minor-key scale, while the orchestration for strings and woodwinds subtly shifts and deepens.
Still, in nearly three hours of music, there are times when, unless one has completely succumbed to the spell, the method can seem arbitrary and the results tedious. Does that phrase really need to be sung in just that way for a 14th and then a 15th time? How often will the chorus repeat the exact same melodic fragment?
Happily, McDermott and Crouch, along with costume designer Kevin Pollard, have created a feast for the eyes. The set is a semi-circular wall that looks like corrugated tin. The stage is filled with grotesque oversize puppets, stilt-walkers and aerialists, and the designers make inventive use of simple materials like newspaper and sticky tape.
The most stunning sequence comes in Act 3. An actor depicting Martin Luther King Jr. _ Gandhi's spiritual heir _ stands at an elevated podium at the rear with his back to us, gesturing while he delivers a speech. Men and women slowly crisscross the middle of the stage, unwinding strands of transparent tape until they have erected a shimmering barrier that separates the soloists in front from the chorus behind. Later, the tape is twisted and crumpled into a bird-like shape, and a woman rises on wires carrying it aloft, twisting it into a giant ball and flying away with it. Finally, the set opens at the back to reveal a blue sky flecked with clouds.
There were some empty seats Friday night, but those who stayed to the end cheered lustily for the entire cast and production team _ and especially for the 74-year-old composer when he came out for a bow.
"Satyagraha" will be performed six more times through Dec. 1. The Saturday matinee Nov. 19 will be broadcast live in high definition to movie theaters around the world.