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Review: Einstein on the beach

An astonishing production at the Barbican

Photograph: © Lucie Jansch

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.

Tags:opera