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Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch bring a timeless production of Philip Glass' 1979 opera about Mahatma Gandhi to the Met.

A scene from Satyagraha
(© Ken Howard)
Time is ultimately the test of a classic, but on stage it's not unusual for a production to lend a work absolutely convincing timelessness. This is stunningly true of the treatment director Phelim McDermott and associate director-set designer Julian Crouch give Philip Glass' 1979 opera Satyagraha, which is debuting at the Metropolitan Opera as a co-production with the English National Opera and the Improbable theater company.

Every detail the creators have seen to -- including Kevin Pollard's costumes, Paule Constable's lights, and the video design by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer -- is ingeniously tailored to the complex simplicity of Glass' score and to the stark text that librettist Constance DeJong has culled from the Bhagavad Gita, the classic Indian text. It's also cleverly germane to the complex simplicity of the life lived by the opera's protagonist, Mohandas. K. Gandhi, who derived much of his convictions and teachings from the Bhagavad Gita.

The corrugated steel used for the panoramic backdrop on which the many projections of Bhagavad Gita homilies are shown was familiar to Gandhi as cheap building material throughout his 1893-1914 Africa stay, when he developed the beliefs in non-violence he practiced throughout the rest of his life. Just as familiar to the Mahatma were newspapers that Crouch and his puppet-makers use as props and as basic matter for out-scaled puppets. The broadsheets recall Indian Opinion, the paper Gandhi published during his early political crusading.

DeJong and Glass begin the opera on a mythical battlefield where towering puppets representing Krishna and Arjuna confront each other. Then, the authors of the three-act piece follow a mythic, non-linear approach to their unabashedly inspirational story. One act conjures the memory of major Gandhi influence Leo Tolstoy, the second references Indian literary figure Rabindranath Tagore, and the third invokes Gandhi disciple Martin Luther King. Meanwhile, McDermott and Crouch -- best-known for the delightfully ghoulish Shockheaded Peter -- unwrap one striking image after another, one mesmerizing ritual after another.

To emphasize the initial gesture Gandhi (Richard Croft) makes towards rejecting worldly possessions, he removes his jacket and puts it on a hanger lowered from the fly. Immediately, his followers -- played by the Met chorus (admirably prepared by Donald Palumbo) -- remove their outer garments and place them on rows of additional suspended hangers, which are slowly raised until they remain just below the proscenium top. Yet, Satyagraha isn't only recommended for its unforgettable visuals.

Wrought in the composer's supposed "minimalist" style, the music may still sound repetitive to contemporary audiences only slowly accustoming themselves to Glass' writing, But for the most part his unceasing subtle harmonies keep his composing from being anything humdrum. Moreover, the melodies for the singers consistently fall easily on the ear, and the problem of redundancy only becomes apparent in the final aria when Gandhi sings while an upstage actor impersonating King silently delivers what most audience members undoubtedly assume is the "I Have a Dream" speech.

Throughout the work, Glass threads the rhythms, increasing tempi, and mounting intensity of Indian raga. Also, given the profoundly spiritual nature of the enterprise, a listener can't be dismissed for detecting the echoes of Gregorian chants. Dante Anzolini, the conductor making his Met debut, brought all these implicit facets out with exacting nobility. The tension missing from the above-mentioned closing aria seemed the sole miscalculation. Words of special praise go also to the flutists whose second-act playing was increasingly urgent and exciting, suggesting sweeping winds of change.

McDermott amplifies the unmistakable oratorio aspects of Satyagraha by having the singers, often standing erect front and center, address everything directly to the audience. Gandhi is sung with humble dignity by Croft, who supposedly lost 100 pounds to impersonate the late leader. (He's definitely shaved his head.) The rest of the cast is authoritatively effective, most notably Mary Phillips as Mrs. Alexander, a women who comes to Gandhi's aid during a confrontation with citizens bridling at Gandhi's politics. Indeed, the quiet strength exhibited by all participants reiterates Gandhi's -- and Glass' -- own persuasive satyagraha.