Review: Einstein on the beach

An astonishing production at the Barbican

Barbican Theatre 6.20pm, Friday 4 May, 2012

The Duke of Wellington once observed that just because a man is born in a stable it doesn’t make him a horse. It’s an argument that could easily be made of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. Born at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1976, and intended (rather optimistically) by Wilson to fall “within the traditional repertory of opera”, this non-narrative, five-hour, musico-dramatic spectacle is at first encounter more installation art than opera as we know it.

Revived by its original creators for the first time in 20 years, and currently receiving its UK premiere run at the Barbican Theatre, Einstein is guaranteed to polarise audiences. Taking into account not only Glass’s wilful, beautiful score, but a confounding collage of a libretto and Wilson’s obscure visual formalism, anyone surrendering to the experience must inevitably ask – is this really opera? And if so, is it any good?

As ever with Glass, questions prove more useful than any attempt at an answer. As the first truly abstract opera, Einstein on the Beach offers an immersive and vehement rebuttal of all our expectations. It insists visually, aurally and theatrically that we give in to an unfamiliar pace and process – a process that doesn’t just enact the drama, but that is the drama.

We watch a glowing horizontal bar of light (whether an altar, window, the hand of a clock, or just a bar) rise slowly to the vertical, a clock cycles through 24 hours, a moon passes behind a cloud and eventually emerges again. Time passes, and Wilson’s is time in the Bergsonian sense – the time of Woolf’s The Waves or Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night – the impossibly fluid, endlessly plastic durée rather than the clock-time of temps.

The figures in these living tableaux are no less inscrutable. A cast all dressed as Einstein project an unsettling lack of individuality, as though workers in Wilson’s own totalitarian vision. Movements are drawn from a limited physical vocabulary of robotic gestures – sharply curved elbows, convulsive kicks and unnatural angles – animating the scenes with unsettling beauty. Only the two Field Dances (performed by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company to Childs’ own choreography) escape these physical restrictions, mirroring Glass’s additive patterning in their complex sequences of movement.

The characters grasp after self-expression and communication but find Glass’s anti-lyrical phrases set only to the empty syllables of solfege, numbers, or Christopher Knowles’ associative and fragmented texts, with their stories that go nowhere and their recurring images of sailboats, trains and love. Wilson transports us from a train to a courtroom to a panoptic tower, offering us carefully curated images and characters but leaving them strangely unframed, unmoored from meaning.

But Wilson’s “theatre of images” cannot stand alone; integrated absolutely into the shifting planes of action is Glass’s score. The composer’s resistance to the term “minimalism” can be clearly felt here as he explores everything from a Bach-referencing organ fantasia to a jazz-inflected saxophone solo (from a defiantly vibrant Andrew Sterman). Playing with the minimalist principle of subtlety, it is variation not repetition that emerges as the dominant structure.

The tonic triad, usually harmony’s home and point of resolution, becomes so denatured, so distorted in Glass’s circling arpeggios as to become a source of tension. Fulfilment is endlessly deferred, but rather than frustrating the listener the constant harmonic possibility of the score is exciting and addictive. This is subjunctive composition, music that asks us to speculate, to finish thoughts and sentences that Glass only whispers. And whereas the same processes in the later Satyagraha become inescapably yoked to a pseudish, mystic-philosophical agenda and narrative, here they are allowed to flourish in the endless possibilities of abstraction.

Pre-dating the video technology and techniques that have become the mainstay of contemporary stage works, thirty-odd years on Einstein on the Beach looks all the better for its analogue simplicity. Dressed up in digital trickery the work would lose its clarity, the purity of symbol and image that give it its allusive power. It is ironic then that the work should be so let down by contemporary technology on press-night, with an unscheduled interval needed and certain flying elements not even attempted.

But it was a small flaw in an otherwise astonishing evening. The generosity of Wilson’s invention and imagery, coupled with a score whose apparent restrictions are gradually revealed as nothing of the kind, creates a phantasmagoria whose minimalism is more maximal than anything you’ll see on stage this year.

So is Einstein opera? Probably not, and that in both the best and worst of ways. Lovers of the voice will chafe at the mechanistic brutality Glass subjects it to, a more defiant rejection of melody than even the most extreme contortions of Stockhausen or Boulez. Yet lovers of opera as the all-embracing gesamkunstwerk of a genre will recognise something almost Wagnerian about Glass and Wilson’s creation. A melding of image and music more absolute than anything we’ve seen in the opera house before or since. It’s not opera, but in the same way that Yohji Yamamoto’s designs are not fashion, or Don Quixote is not a novel, it is beyond opera.

Photograph: © Lucie Jansch

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses