A new tour of the opera retains many of the limitations of the original 1970s production
Pomegranate Arts' 2012-13 tour of Einstein on the Beach made its first North American stop at Toronto’s Luminato Festival (June 8-10), after short runs at Opéra Berlioz in Montpellier, France, the Teatro Valli in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and the Barbican Centre.
Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s four-and-a-half-hour abstract theatrical, commonly referred to as Glass’s first opera, challenges audiences not only to abide a show that lasts twice as long as most artistic performances but also to extract a storyline that Einstein on the Beach aggressively denies them.
And so one sits as the hours pass, weighing the merits of continuing to sit until the end or to rise for respite and return, or to draw the line a leave, intuiting that much will be missed with a premature departure, but little will be lost except the right to say one had seen it all.
The staging, a rarity since Einstein on the Beach was first performed in Avignon in July 1976, is a fixity in an opera world where classic works receive adventurous re-imaginings regularly with all the incumbent risks such nonconformity entails. Wilson’s formalist ethos and the analogue aspects of the 1976 production limitations are maintained in the latest touring incarnation. There is no digital awesomeness. The first act, called ‘Train’, features a large, mostly static, engine more typical of a school pageant than a professional theatre spectacle, and in the last act, ‘Spaceship’, what looks like a foot-long paper rocket is slowly towed along a line from the bottom left to the top right until it disappears. Glass’s music, renowned for its repetitiveness, does little to induce the thrill of cosmic exploration. The stage technology of the 1950s Flash Gordon television episodes looked positively space age in comparison to Wilson’s childlike effect.
Einstein on the Beach is called an opera, but it has just one solo soprano vocalese, sung with a pure, vibratoless tone by Hai-Ting Chinn. The rest of the singing is in small ensemble, and those singers deserve high praise for their fervent musicianship.
At about the three-and-a-half hour mark, there is also a welcome diversion from the sometimes hypnotic, sometimes tedious, minimalism of this early Glass score. Andrew Sterman plays an extended tenor saxophone solo with the verve and inventiveness of free-jazz specialist John Coltrane. The spell of Glass is exuberantly broken. I was more than relieved.
The libretto, if it can be called such, is mainly numbers, counted no higher than eight, and solfège syllables. One of the most enthralling aspects of this avant-garde experiment is the way these meaningless ‘words’, when sung to high-tempo relentlessly recursive Glass, create illusions of meaningful phrases. The listener aiming to make Einstein on the Beach make sense is drawn into the sense-making gambit until the actual meaningless truth of the numbers and the notes returns to the foreground. In the tiny nod to standard narrative convention at the very end, a male voice tells the story of a man and a woman sitting on a bench, the woman cajoling the man to count for the many ways he loves her. The last words we hear are ‘fervent osculation’. Imagine what a libretto with words would have looked like?
Violinist Jennifer Koh, sporting a wig that channels the famous physicist’s iconic hairdo, plays the frenetic scales and arpeggios that propel the Glass idiom with unrelenting commitment, but Einstein’s presence, mostly at the periphery of the singing and dancing, begs the unavoidable, nagging question: Where is the beach, and why is the man who propelled the world toward nuclear trauma so incidental a character in a musical and theatrical conundrum that bears his name?
Further performances of Einstein on the Beach will take place at the Brooklyn Opera House, University of California, Teatro del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, Amsterdam's Het Muziektheater, and Hong Kong's Cultural Centre Grand Theatre in September, October and November 2012, and January and March 2013. Click here for details.
Bill Rankin is a Canadian freelance writer who has reported on opera and classical music for the American Record Guide, Opera Canada, the Edmonton Journal, the Globe and Mail and Gramophone.