Premiered by Netherlands Opera in 1980, Philip Glass’ masterful “Satyagraha” has finally made its way to the Met. This co-production with English National Opera is the creation of the British theater company Improbable, best known for the visually arresting “Shockheaded Peter.” The opera — and the considerable resources the Met has funneled into it — afford director Phelim McDermott and associate director-set designer Julian Crouch an almost limitlessly vast canvas. The result is a transcendent evening of theater and one of the most striking new Met productions of recent years.
Nothing about this opera or production can be termed traditional. It is not aimed at the subscriber who snores through “Il Trovatore.”
Glass has taken as his subject Gandhi’s stay in South Africa from 1893 to 1914, years which revolutionized him and crystallized his then-radical ideals of passive resistance. But instead of a conventional libretto, Glass uses passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu text that served as Gandhi’s inspiration.
The text is sung in its original Sanskrit, with some passages translated into English via projections beamed directly onto the scenery. (The Met’s seatback title system was deliberately eschewed for this staging.) Conventional storytelling is not Glass’ objective here; instead, this is an attempt to penetrate the audience’s subconscious in order to reach a deeper level of satyagraha — loosely translated as “truth-force.”
Glass’ now-familiar musical vocabulary of repetitive minimalist tropes is well suited to such mystical exploration of inner states. Hypnotic, at times bewitching, the score is exquisitely matched by the surrealistic visuals of McDermott and Crouch’s production.
The dominant set is a huge curved backdrop of corrugated iron, a common building material of 20th century colonialism. Periodically, the backdrop breaks apart or suddenly perforates itself with doors and windows that form multiple mini-stages within the principal space.
It also serves as a screen for projected still and moving images. Newspapers — the medium through which Gandhi spread his beliefs — also make up scenery and abstract props and even figure in the startling appearance of a gaggle of enormous, looming papier-mache puppets that look like figures by Georg Grosz.
The production is a constantly unfolding phantasmagoria of such surprises. Giant birds and amphibious monsters appear; characters are suddenly pulled up into the flies like marionettes; household materials like clothes hangers and rolls of scotch tape are used in magical, unexpected ways.
Much of this is accomplished through the tireless work of the Skills Ensemble, a 12-member troupe of aerialist-acrobat performance artists who collaborate with Improbable. Aiding in the illusions are Kevin Pollard’s costumes, which add the right splash of controlled color, and Paule Constable’s striking lighting design.
But the evening is not merely a visual feast; it is accompanied by musicianship of a very high order. Conductor Dante Anzolini, a longtime Glass associate, keeps a tight rein and never allows Glass’ stretched-out ostinati to slacken into tedium.
The Met chorus, with more to sing than any of the principals, somehow never loses its way in the thickets of repetition, nor is there a single evident misstep in the huge amount of blocking demanded of the performers.
As Gandhi, Richard Croft is a winning figure of quiet force and determination, and his tenor rings out with firm sweetness. Few of the other principals have much to work with in terms of character, but Bradley Garvin, Earle Patriarco, Maria Zifchak and Rachelle Durkin are vocally impressive. Durkin, in particular, thrillingly dominates an act two ensemble with her repeated series of push-button, high-lying phrases.
The Met suffered a major misfire with its last new production, an ill-conceived “Peter Grimes” by John Doyle. McDermott and Crouch have helped wash away the taste of that sad self-indulgence with this revelatory production, which deserves a permanent place in the Met’s repertoire.