09 May 2012

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican, London

Any performance of Philip Glass’ epic Einstein on the Beach (1976) is a major event. The work’s duration is around five hours and it is directed to be performed without interval (although see below — we had one).

Members of the audience are invited to come and go as they please (and some went and didn’t then come back, arguably with some justification). The programme for the event is high-class in itself, lavishly illustrated and includes the libretto, itself remarkably succinct, and a host of other information. None of which helps, really.

The booklet is adorned by a single shaft of white light against a black background— actually from the segment ‘Bed’, in which the shaft moves ever so slowly (tortuously, one might say) towards and upright position before it ascends. All very symbolic— but of what?. The answer is to drop the search for meaning and enjoy the ride and, as a sequence of beautifully executed dances (there is far more dancing than singing) and comedic soap operas (the Trial Scenes, in which one character bore a spooky resemblance to Margaret Thatcher), it works a lot better. Or rather it works differently, for to drop the search for meaning means either to let it all wash over you, or to open a gateway to the subconscious. Injecting Glass into your brain in that way (pardon the pun) might work for some (and probably worked a whole lot better thirty-odd years ago), but alas these days it all comes out as rather dated.

And that sequence of whats— of what?, in what?, to what?— is one that hovers over the entire evening, culminating, at least immediately, in a huge ‘so what?’. Glass’ music rarely moves the listener, except to induce a state of trance, perhaps. So at the end of this sequence of scenes (narrative trajectory really isn’t the point here)— one leaves the Barbican Theatre in a state of some frustration. Just like when you can’t sleep but you know you’re achingly tired. That sort of frustration.

Glass worked with Robert Wilson to produce this minimalist behemoth, taking a series of drawings by Wilson and adding his own characteristic music. There is a sort of willful obfuscation that runs through the piece, and Glass and Wilson seem to make this explicit through the image of a clock running backwards— here, truly, nothing is as it seems.

That it was even longer than it should have been only added to the problems. There was a hiatus (I don’t really want to call it an interval) of what was promised to be ten minutes and ended up being some twenty. This was to fix a succession of glitches that had affected the production, from bits of set really not being where they should be to stage hands with torches in full visibility wondering around, looking as baffled as the audience probably was about the production anyway. It was Wilson himself that came out to apologise— and also to tell us that figures in the final scene wouldn’t be flying around as originally intended.

The standard of performance was remarkably high, as one would perhaps expect from Glass specialists. Antoine Silverman, as Einstein, was jaw-droppingly good. Dressed as Einstein and sitting on the corner of the stage, his violinistic pyrotechnics were magnificent. One shudders to think how long it must have taken to learn Glass’ horribly fast repetitions— one also has to ask was it worth it though. The scenes which were good, were good— the Knee Plays (Helga Davis and Kate Moran) were dispatched with a superb sense of fascinating detachment. The chorus, too, was exemplary, as were the seasoned instrumentalists. But it was the dancers that impressed most— it was impossible to take one’s eyes off them, whether whirling around the stage like dervishes or in stylized movement that evoked Noh theatre.

Einstein on the Beach is the first of three operas Glass wrote on historical figures (the other two are Akhnaten— memorably staged in the 1980s by ENO and centering on the Pharoah who introduced monotheism a long time before Christians jumped on the bandwagon— and Satyagraha, based on the life and teaching of Gandhi). In fairness, some of the excitement of this novelly-constructed work came through, but that was duet to the excellence of performance and dancing. And Glass still has the ability to refract time— in an analogous way to Wagner, for in both cases we experience time differently, yet in a different way (in Glass through mesmeric repetition rather than via Wagnerian extended harmonic plateaux). Try the Entrance Music for Trial 1 to see what I mean.

And yet, and yet … as I write some three days on from the evening of performance, there is the niggling feeling that, despite its shortcomings and frustrations, Einstein on the Beach has affected me ins some deep but as yet unlabelled way. Yes, it sounds like Glass should, but it also has a sound-aura all of its own. Images of the Trial Scenes, with their cutesy comedy, reappear and resonate. The impeccable dancers continue to cast a spell. Hence the frustration of the end of the experience slowly transforming itself over the course of the past few days. I’m not sure I’d like to hear it again in the near future, though. Perhaps in another thirty years?

Colin Clarke