SAN FRANCISCO Since his arrival on the musical scene some 20 years ago, Philip Glass has made important noises on many fronts. He is beyond question our most prolific and often-produced composer of opera; concerts of his music have done turn-away business as classical events, as rock events, and in that gray in-between area variously known as “crossover” or “new age.” He has lately been criticized for an overabundance of facility, of possibly being stuck in a lucrative groove otherwise known as a rut.
But “Satyagraha,” which yesterday completed a well-attended (but not sold out) five-performance run at the San Francisco Opera, evokes no such deplorations; it is a gravely beautiful, powerful work, arguably Glass’s masterpiece to date, possibly also the most eloquent  statement yet made on the dramatic potential of the minimalist style of composition. It is a pure example of that style; each of its nine scenes is based on long strings of repetitions of simple, easy-to-grasp melodic and harmonic patterns. A listener bored at a performance of “Satyagraha” — if such a rare creature there be — can at least pass the time by counting; one whole scene, for example, is built on no fewer than 143 repetitions of a four-chord harmonic progression. Mohandas Gandhi’s spellbinding final aria consists entirely of a scale passage repeated identically, with shifting orchestrations, 30 times.
But that is far from the point. “Satyagraha” is, as you’ve surely read by now, a musical account of early struggles of Gandhi, his attempts to galvanize the Indian community in South Africa to an assertion of its identity in the face of hostility from the country’s European leaders. (The title, from Gandhi’s writings, suggests a fusion of honor and strength.)  There is no dramatic dialog as such; the libretto, by Glass himself and Constance De Jong, uses instead a text, in the original Sanskrit, from classic Indian sources that details Gandhi’s latter-day struggles by indirection and analogy. This manner of fashioning the drama is sure and skillful, and it works beautifully with the time-scale dictated by the music.
That quality of interaction, above all, turns all of “Satyagraha” into an opera that is both profoundly, satisfyingly original and fulfills at the same time the classic definition: words and music blending into an art higher than its parts. The production, now nine years old and much-traveled (Seattle and Chicago most recently) is basically unchanged, but for a few minor directorial subtleties, from David Pountney’s staging at the1980 Rotterdam premiere. It becomes part of this oneness: Robert Israel’s simple, stylized set-pieces (small house-models carried in and out on platforms, a spectacular mockup of an old printing press with its turning flywheel that suggests an ancient Shiva sculpture) are beautifully lit behind a scrim that lends a chalky texture over-all. I remember pictures of old Indian cave paintings that had that same tone.
Douglas Perry was San Francisco’s Gandhi; a vivid interpreter of comprimario parts (e.g., the Idiot in “Boris Godunov”), he has made a whole separate career out of his ownership of this one role, which he does superbly. His voice, soft-textured but accurate over a wide range, lends a disembodied quality that, again, becomes part of the opera’s dramatic whole. Bruce Ferden, who conducted, has also been part of the “Satyagraha” scene, and of the entire Glass operatic repertory, from the beginning. (Christopher Keene, however, conducted the New York City Opera performances and the CBS recording, not nearly so incisively or as sure-footedly, as Ferden.)
“Satyagraha” belongs in the repertory. With its modest instrumentation (basically a Mozart orchestra, with one synthesizer that merely doubles) it demands only superb musicianship. It submits to a variety of stagings; for proof of that there is the lavish, wildly inventive Stuttgart production by Achim Freyer that shows up on cable TV now and then,
as different from the Robert Israel conception as fireworks from fireflies. The opera itself endures,  a work of noble beauty and truth; its great moments, of which there are many, are genuinely moving.
San Francisco’s opera audiences do not share the Los Angeles propensity for according standing ovations to anything that can cross a stage without falling down.  At Friday night’s “Satyagraha,” however, there were many who stood.