NEW YORK - The chugging, burbling music of Philip Glass is so ubiquitous today that it takes some effort to picture him in his rough-and-tumble artistic youth, a time when his compositions, now the stuff of Hollywood film scores, were truly radical in the boldness of their simplicity. Glass's breakout work for musical theater was the audacious, prism-shifting "Einstein on the Beach," but even after its sensational success at home and abroad in 1976, he still returned to driving a taxi in New York City to pay the bills. As the story goes, one day, a well-heeled passenger entered his cab and spotted his driver identification. "Young man," she asked, "do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?"
"Einstein" had announced Glass's arrival, but it was the next work, "Satyagraha," about Gandhi's formative years in South Africa, that confirmed his achievement, and proved his ability to make this simple repetitive music into the lifeblood of a new meditative brand of opera. In reflecting on the birth and spiritual dimensions of Gandhi's political ideal of nonviolent resistance, Glass created a score of subdued grace, sensual richness, and hypnotic power.
These days, "Satyagraha" is taken as canonical early Glass, a body of work that enjoys a critical acceptance never granted to much of the later music, even as Glass's celebrity grew. Still, the opera is referenced far more often than it is staged, and so there was a sense of anticipation on Friday night when the Metropolitan Opera unveiled a new production, shared with the English National Opera. Gandhi's grandson was in the audience, as were several Tibetan monks. What they witnessed was a vividly imagined staging full of striking images that do cumulative if not complete justice to this haunting score.
"Satyagraha," like "Einstein," is a so-called portrait opera that evokes its subject through a series of suspended glimpses of key moments during the period in South Africa (1893-1914) when Gandhi was mobilizing that country's oppressed Indian minority and developing his own brand of transformational politics embodied by the opera's title, which can be translated as "truth force."
The scenes take the form of stylized tableaux, poetic meditations on historical moments rather than anything that might hint at documentary realism. Emphasizing this distance, Constance DeJong's libretto - in Sanskrit - consists entirely of passages taken from the "Bhagavad-Gita." The opera's first scene is set in the mythic landscape of this ancient text and the other scenes are inspired by actual events in Gandhi's life. They are grouped into three acts with each one supervised by the spirit of a historical figure connected to the past, present, and future of Gandhi's political thought: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King Jr., respectively.
But the key element is of course the music. Conceived and written in the late 1970s, it manages to maintain the early integrity of the composer's signature style while annexing the sumptuous vocal and instrumental textures of traditional opera. It is full of supple writing for solo voice, for small ensemble, and often for full chorus. In a sense, it represents an elusive way station in Glass's overarching journey, a moment of perfect equipoise between his past as an austere minimalist pioneer and his future as a neo-Romantic populist. He never again achieved this precise balance.
Directed by Phelim McDermott with sets by Julian Crouch, the new production is one of the more visually inventive stagings seen at the Met in a long time, especially in the way it seeks to build from the humblest of materials. The action is framed by a curved backdrop of corrugated iron onto which translated excerpts from the libretto are projected. Enormous papier-mache gods and politicians wander in and out of the action. There are times when the doings on stage seem to distract by working against the elegant simplicity of the music - as with the alligator made of baskets, and all that tape - but on other occasions they underscore these very qualities. Paper is used virtuosically as a stage element, and with particular beauty in the middle scene of Act II, devoted to Indian Opinion, the weekly newspaper that proved an essential tool in Gandhi's emerging movement.
Still, none of McDermott and Crouch's inventive stagecraft will turn Glass skeptics into Glass appreciators. To a large degree, one's response to this opera is predetermined by one's openness to Glass's basic idiom. As always, those who hear in this music only melodically impoverished, mind-numbing repetition - and this large group includes plenty of critics - will want to crawl out of their skin before the first act is over. Those open to a meditative listening experience that obeys its own laws of glacial pacing will find a visually rich presentation of a landmark Glass score, one that flows by with a moving and serene grandeur unique among his oeuvre.
Richard Croft sang Gandhi with a mellifluous and lyrical tenor that seemed at once to convey the strength of the historical subject and the sublime sadness of this music. Mary Phillips and Maria Zifchak were among the fine ensemble cast. The score is packed with involved choral writing that the Met chorus handled with its customary precision and flair. In the pit, Dante Anzolini kept things mostly on track - no small task here - though there were times when one wished for more presence and boldness from the orchestra.
The most enchanting moments of "Satyagraha" come in its final pages, as Gandhi is alone on stage with only the presiding spirit of MLK looming above him, preaching to an invisible crowd. Over a churning orchestral theme plucked from "Einstein on the Beach," Gandhi sings a simple ascending line. It is nothing more than a scale but - with the wise ancient text that here seems to view the world from above - this passage seems somehow freighted with both the tragedy and the utopian promise buried in the history that inspired this opera. As is Glass's way, Gandhi repeats this scale again and again until it burrows deep into one's memory. And then it is gone. So is the opera.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.