Einstein on the Beach: Fresh and Clean After 20 Years

21/09/2012

 Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, New York (19.9.2012) with additional performances (20-23.9.2012)  (SSM)

Cast:

Jennifer Koh: Einstein/solo violinist (14-16.9.2012)
Antoine Silverman: Einstein/solo violinist (19-23.9.2012)
Christopher Knowles: Spoken Text
Samuel M. Johnson: Spoken Text
Lucinda Childs: Spoken Text
Helga Davis: Featured performer
Kate Moran: Featured performer
Boy: Jasper Newell
Mr. Johnson: Charles Williams

Chorus

Lucinda Childs Dance Company
Rehearsal director: Ty Boomershine

Philip Glass Ensemble
Music director: Michael Riesman

 

Production:

Philip Glass (Music/Lyrics)
Robert Wilson (Direction and light design)
Lucinda Childs (Choreography)
Lighting design by Urs Schoenebaum
Sound design by Kurt Munkasci

 

There is a great disparity between the opinion of Philip Glass’s music that is held by many listeners and the music itself. Mention his name and someone will sing something in solfège,or mouth a repetitious phrase over an implied pedal point. Mention that you are going to a production of a Glass opera that runs 4 1/2 hours without intermission, and you are told that you are crazy. I myself can be accused of this mindset, at least towards Glass’s music since the trilogy of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten. There are some exceptions, works that have grown on me over the years – the chamber opera The Photographer (1988); the soundtrack to the movie The Thin Blue Line (1988); and the first “qatsi” documentary, Koyaanisqatsi (1982) – but neither Powaqqatsi (1988) nor Naqoyqatsi (2002) work for me.

It is 20 years since Einstein on the Beach was last performed, a long enough time for all concerned to eschew any remembrance of having been overwhelmed or overloaded by the music. As the text says many, many times, “It could be fresh and clean,” and it was. Einstein is successful both as an artifact reflecting the Zeitgeist of the period in which it was written, and as a work of art that stands outside of time. Although first performed in 1976, it is very much a product of the 1960s. The hypnotic music harkens back to cult groups whose never-ending repetitions of “magic” words transported them into an altered state of mind. Cartoonish grimaces, over-exaggerated gestures, comic book trains and buses realized in the pop style of Peter Max, a mock trial out of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, a toy rocket ship on a clearly seen wire straight from the cheap sci-fi films of schlock director Ed Wood: all examples of what could be classified as “camp.” The penultimate scene of the opera, which takes place in a space machine, is modeled after similar images of workers operating machines in the camp classic Metropolis.

The production itself was a masterpiece of synchronization. As if to confirm this systematization, the actors all wore wristwatches. However, sometimes the symbolism, even though very much of the period it is reflecting, is sophomoric. Gyroscopes, clocks going backwards in time, a building backdrop in the style of De Chirico, halo-like objects floating across the stage: all would be a gold mine for a college student’s assignment to interpret what these symbols “mean.”

Glass’s music succeeds here partly because it’s still fresh, and as the play progresses it falls naturally into the background, which overcomes the problem one can have when listening to the music in private. It only becomes the center of attention when the acting and dancing stop. The high point musically was the wildly virtuosic violin solos by Antoine Silverman. Very much like the early Baroque violin works of Legrenzi, Navara and Valentini, Glass demands both intense concentration and nearly impossible technique. At times it resembled the prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin played at prestissimo. Another high point was mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn’s solo near the end of the opera, which sounded like Emma Kirkby singing Couperin on amphetamines.

There were two major dance intermezzos, but only the second one was attention-grabbing. The first featured traditional pirouettes, arabesques and pliés, but the second one, driven by the organ all stops out, was energetic, exhausting and exhilarating.

Of course in an opera this long, with the demands it places on both the audience (who handled their private intermissions considerately) and the players, there are bound to be weak moments: Scene 1B at the back of the train went on too long, as did the Space Machine of Scene 3B.

Overall, I doubt that anything this season will come close to Einstein as a theater, music and dancing event. Two days later, and I’m still haunted by it.

Stan Metzger

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