Archive for the ‘Glass’ Category

Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Theatre, May 2012

7 May, 2012

When this work was created in 1976 the musical world was full of new inventiveness, and this opera — if that’s the right term — was very much in the avant garde. Five hours of theatre without an interval, allowing one to enter and exit at will, was a new experience and new experiences were in vogue. It was the year Jimmy Carter won the US presidency with his post-Vietnam morality, but four years later he was history.

Antoine Silverman, all images Lucie Jansch

So how has this opera fared in the meantime? Immediately after its premiere at Avignon, and tour around Europe, the Met put it on in New York for two performances and you couldn’t get a ticket. As Philip Glass says, “… we could go on giving Einstein at the Met every Sunday, and they would go on selling it out every Sunday, but we couldn’t afford it”. So it disappeared from the scene, making this revival at the Barbican Theatre very welcome. The ample leg room made it easy to scooch out and return without disturbing anyone, which I did, though some people near me stayed throughout, and chatted or used i-phones.

But what of the work itself? The music is ‘minimalist’, a term Glass dislikes, and as he says, “… it’s not about the big movements, it’s about all the little movements that are happening, changing like sand”. Musically interesting, dramatically empty, and theatrically the little movements were the essence. Before the start there are white shirted people in the pit, and when you look a second time there is one more … and one more, and you barely see where they come from.

The words are repeated … many times. “I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket/ and there were all these aisles/ and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy/ which had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them/ they were red and yellow and blue/ I wasn’t tempted to buy one/ but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach”. And then without any break she repeats it … many dozens of times with tiny variations in emphasis and word spacing.

Repeating the supermarket sentence

Yes, it’s dated, as is the original title Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street. The libretto has nothing to do with Wall Street, nor with the beach, nor indeed with Einstein, though toward the end there are clocks going in two directions, vertical and horizontal, followed by a small rocket going diagonally across stage, and then writing appears on the front drop talking about nuclear power. Certainly the equation E = mc2 equating mass with energy came from Einstein’s first theory of relativity formulated forty years before the nuclear bomb, which in turn predated Glass’s ‘opera’ by just over thirty years.

Since that time production methods have moved on and Robert Wilson’s designs are no longer avant garde, making it seem a period piece. Beautifully performed though, with Michael Riesman conducting the Philip Glass Ensemble, and Antoine Silverman dressed to look like Einstein himself giving a fine performance on the solo violin.

Performances continue until May 13 — for details click here.

In the Penal Colony, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, September 2010

16 September, 2010

How to expiate guilt? Not by instant execution surely, so a long process of torture has been devised using an exquisite machine that only the executing officer understands. He believes in it wholeheartedly — in a sense it’s his raison d’être — but as he realises the new governor will not approve its use, he is ready to undergo its treatment himself. In the twelve hours it takes the machine to score the condemned man’s sentence on his skin, there is opportunity for redemption, even though he doesn’t know the charges against him, nor indeed the fact that he has been condemned to death. The officer believes it creates in the victim a mystical experience, and he is nostalgic for the previous governor who designed the machine, and in whose regime sentences were always justly deserved and carried out. Bizarrre? But this is Kafka.

The new governor has appointed a visitor to report on the process, and he looks miserable. “I accepted this invitation out of courtesy”, he begins. When the officer enters with the condemned man and enthuses about the machine, the visitor — very well sung with excellent diction by Michael Bennett — grows increasingly uneasy. The officer — very beautifully sung by Omar Ebrahim — is quite sure of the justice he is delivering, and confidently answers the visitors questions. “Does he know his sentence?” “No”. “Does he know he’s been condemned?” “No”. The prisoner, played by Gerald Tyler apparently doesn’t understand the language, and sings not a word. His is an acting role and he performs it with slow cowed movements, until the end when he is apparently in command. Now he leers sadistically. Apparently he understands what will happen, but in fact the machine malfunctions, and death comes very fast. There is no mystical experience for the officer — he may have delivered it to others, but there is none left for him.

This strange story was darkly lit by Ace McCarron, and supported on a tableau of music by Philip Glass, played by a string quintet from the Music Theatre Wales conducted by Michael Rafferty. The music was rhythmically intense, as one would expect from Glass, and its energy carried the strange plot forward. The direction by Michael McCarthy was excellent, and it was all over in an hour and twenty minutes. Short and intense, but it didn’t leave me thinking any deep thoughts.

Satyagraha, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, February 2010

26 February, 2010

photo by Alistair Muir

This is an opera about Gandhi (1869–1948) and his belief in non-violent resistance. Violence is a word common to many languages, but non-violence is not described by a single word, so Gandhi invented one — satyagraha. It’s a Sanskrit word from two roots, satya meaning ‘truth’, and agraha meaning ‘holding firmly to’, giving the sense of holding firmly to truth.

The opera is in three parts, headed TolstoyTagore and King. The first is named after the great Russian writer whose letters to the young Gandhi were a source of inspiration, until Tolstoy died in 1910. The second part is named after Rabindranath Tagore the great Indian writer, and first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. He and Gandhi had a great reverence for one another, and it was Tagore who used the honorific ‘Mahatma’ (meaning great soul) to refer to his friend. The third part is named after Martin Luther King, who was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s teachings, and remarked that, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics”.

Despite these three parts referring to past, present and future, the libretto has no narrative in the conventional sense, and there are no surtitles, though it’s sung in Sanskrit. Words are occasionally projected, sometimes on an array of newspapers held up by the performers, and whole sentences occasionally appear on the backdrop. The libretto, like Glass’s music, is very repetitive, but I mean this in a good sense, and its insistent intensity provides a way of approaching the persistent minds of original thinkers like Gandhi, and others (Einstein, Galileo, Kepler, Akhnaten) about whom Glass has written operas.

This one about Gandhi reveals excerpts from his life, such as his early experiences as an Indian lawyer working in South Africa when he experienced racism at first hand. For example, the incident when he was attacked by a crowd of white settlers, and only rescued by the wife of the police superintendent, is vividly shown. Many years before Gandhi went to South Africa he had studied the law at University College London, where he acquired an interest in Buddhist and Hindu literature, and joined others in reading the Bhagavad Gita. Excerpts from this great poem are performed by giant puppets, battling one another in slow motion, the puppets themselves being constructed on stage from baskets and rolled up newspaper. This puppetry, and the masks that appear later, are glorious and enliven the rather static nature of the music. With excellent sets and costumes the whole opera becomes a slowly moving picture that changes, yet somehow remains the same, just like the music.

Stuart Stratford conducted it, keeping both orchestra and singers in unison, and bringing out the lyrical and rhythmic quality of Philip Glass’s music, while Gandhi was well sung and very calmly performed by Alan Oke. The absence of surtitles and clear narrative is unusual, but I found the whole work an uplifting experience. The production by Phelim McDermott, assisted by Julian Crouch who also did the marvellous set designs, along with excellent costumes by Kevin Pollard, and superbly subtle lighting by Paule Constable, has a rather ethereal quality, and as a friend of mine said, “I was left humming peaceful thoughts all the way home”.