GLASS Einstein on the Beach
Premiered in Avignon in August 1976, then toured across six European countries for two months before selling out New York’s Metropolitan Opera House for two nights, Einstein on the Beach was an instant success despite being an opera unlike any other. Fearlessly bold, unclassifiable and unique in terms of Philip Glass’s highly repetitive minimalist language and director Robert Wilson’s innovative use of theatrical space and movement, Einstein contains no plot. There are no conventional arias, duets or vocal ensembles. An offstage chorus sings only numbers and solfège syllables. The orchestra is replaced in the pit by an ensemble comprising amplified flutes, saxophones, bass clarinet, organ, keyboards and synthesiser bass.
The only ‘character’ as such is a solo violinist dressed as Einstein, who sits somewhere in between stage and pit and never forms part of the onstage action. Instead of an overture we hear a babble of stream-of-consciousness-style texts by Christopher Knowles. Gestures and symbols often speak louder than words: a white, radiating beam of light is a recurrent and abiding image. Each one of the opera’s four acts is divided into two or three scenes, connected by a series of entr’actes called Knee Plays. Courtroom and prison scenes are followed by self-contained dance sections – beautifully choreographed by Lucinda Childs – with bodies flowing gracefully and magically through space.
Somehow these disparate parts form an unbroken continuity during the opera’s four-and-a-half-hour journey. An underlying energy and momentum finally build up to a terrifying climax in Act 4’s Spaceship scene, which is then resolved in a simple message of love and hope that accompanies the opera’s fifth and final Knee Play.
Given its unconventional nature and combination of unusual vocal and instrumental forces, performances of Einstein on the Beach have been few and far between, adding to the work’s mystical aura. In 2012 a new production by Pomegranate Arts – the first in 20 years – toured the opera worldwide, off and on, for three years. It seems fitting that this DVD performance should be filmed at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris (in January 2014), back in the country where Einstein started its public life. Brilliantly shot with excellent sound quality, judging from photographs of the original 1976 production it’s also an accurate representation of how Glass and Wilson originally envisaged it. With excellent performances by a highly versatile 12-part chorus, a well-oiled Philip Glass Ensemble directed by Michael Riesman (which includes a dazzling bebop-style saxophone solo by Andrew Sterman in Act 4 scene 1), and violinist Antoine Silverman as the inscrutable Einstein, this is as close to a definitive version of the opera as you’re likely to get.