Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris - 2014
Michael Riesman, Robert Wilson, Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Antoine Silverman, Jasper Newell, Charles Williams
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Although both Philip Glass and Robert Wilson remain major figures in the world of opera, the 2012-13 revival of their groundbreaking collaboration Einstein on the Beach, first performed in 1976, represents an opportunity to see the more radical roots of both the composer and the stage director. Einstein on the Beach seems to have sprung more or less organically from their days as part of a community of experimental artists in downtown New York, a circle also frequented by choreographer Lucinda Childs. The work was never created with the notion of it being an opera. It was just an opportunity for a group of like-minded experimental artists to collaborate together.
The fact that it required a stage big enough to encompass this unusual project led to Einstein on the Beach being performed in opera houses, but in retrospect, the work is clearly a combination of all the key musical and theatrical elements that go into the artform. Einstein on the Beach is a true Gesamtkunstwerk in that respect. There are words, there are stage sets, there's music, there's dancing. There is perhaps however one notable element missing from what we would normally associate with opera. One major element - there's a complete lack of any traditional dramatic narrative in Einstein on the Beach. One would even be hard pressed even to find an overarching theme or a concept in the work, but it very much has a purpose nonetheless.
Einstein on the Beach would later be considered alongside the subsequent Satyagraha (Gandhi) and Akhnaten as the first of Philip Glass's three portraits operas, but there's even less of anything like a conventional portrait of Albert Einstein in the composer's first work. In place of a libretto, the words are seemingly random, repeated, cut-up and recited texts by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs, with solfege and numbers reeled out at dizzying speeds according to the changing rhythms of 'Music in Twelve Parts'-era Philip Glass. Rather than employ an orchestra or use traditional string instruments, the music is played by the Philip Glass Ensemble on electronic keyboards, with flutes, clarinets and saxophones. Albert Einstein also appears as a character who plays the violin during the 'Knee-Play' connecting segments of the opera.
To accompany each musical sequence with chanted and recited texts, Robert Wilson transforms the stage with shades of luminous blue lighting, uses geometric shapes for props and has figures strike angular poses as they move around within these scenes. Lucinda Childs' dancers work with the settings, holding poses and shapes, or whirl across and off the stage in response to the wild repetitive rhythms of Glass's music. None of this however adds up to anything like a progressive dramatic arc or character development. In fact, the audience are not even expected to sit through the complete five hours or so of a work without intervals, but are actually encouraged to wander in and out of the theatre whenever they feel like it. It's unlikely anyone taking a short a comfort break will really miss anything here.
Whether Einstein on the Beach is performance art that reflects or perhaps tells us something about order in the modern world, about the place that mathematics and technology play in our lives (in the precise arrangements of the music score even more than in any of the texts) is up to the individual viewer to determine. It is what it is. Music with changing parts, immersive theatre and dance in its purest form - music as music, theatre as theatre, dance as dance. It's left to the viewer to take it in, absorb it, feel it, experience it and make something more of it if they can. It can be hypnotic ('Train'), exhilarating ('Field Dance I') irritatingly dull ('Trial'), haunting ('Bed') and often humorous, but the combination of those experiments and complementary art forms, always progressing and changing, mean that it's an incredibly immersive and involving experience. It's not a "message" opera, it's not a story opera, it's something else, something alive and bursting with energy.
As a means of experiencing Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach is also just about as pure and essential an example of both artists' work as you'll find in the music theatre world. It's a work that only really functions as it ought to in full performance. Critics and audiences reacted favourably when the show played at the Barbican in London, and it's tremendous to have the entire four and a half hour production recorded in High Definition at the 2014 shows at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
It comes across exceptionally well on the small screen, a spellbinding production of propulsive, hypnotic rhythms, voice and movement, with an exceptional cast who have to deal with some highly complex and physically exhausting arrangements. Some of the texts have been revised and replaced from the 1976 original, and the staging is perhaps a little more high-tech, but essentially this is very much in line with the original design and concept and it's a fine reminder of the experimental vitality of early Philip Glass. Robert Wilson's technique on the other hand hasn't changed that much.
The all-region compatible Blu-ray release has the benefit not only of a glorious High Definition presentation of Robert Wilson's exquisite lighting and colouration (the fine gradients of light and colour undoubtedly incredibly difficult to master for a video transfer), but the experience is enhanced through the uncompressed audio mixes. The surround-sound audio track of the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix in particular separates the vocal layering well. The BD comes as a 2-disc set in a hardcover book format case with a cardboard outer slipcase. There are no extra features on the discs, but the booklet contains interview excerpts from Glass, Wilson and Childs that explain how the work came to be created and how it has developed. There's also an essay on just what is unique and extraordinary about the work. There are no subtitles - as most of the texts are meaningless anyway - and there is evidently no synopsis. The chapter names and selection can be found from the pop-up menus while the disc is playing.