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Time Travel With Einstein: Glass’s Opera Returns to the Stage
The New York Times
By Anthony Tommasini
‘Einstein on the Beach,’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
As the audience milled into the Brooklyn Academy of Music for Saturday night’s performance of “Einstein on the Beach,” an exhilarating revival of the pathbreaking 1976 opera by the composer Philip Glass and the director Robert Wilson, the piece seemed already to have started.
The electric keyboards and synthesizers of the Philip Glass Ensemble quietly played the low three-note organ drone that runs through the opening “knee play,” as the creators call the five episodes that punctuate the major scenes of the opera’s four acts. Two compelling lead performers, Helga Davis and Kate Moran, dressed in baggy gray pants and white shirts with black suspenders, having moved incrementally toward seats onstage, began muttering together. One spoke numbers randomly; the other recited a nonsensical yet alluring text by Christopher Knowles. (“Would it get some wind for the sailboat.”)
Before long, from risers in the pit, a dozen choristers dressed like Ms. Davis and Ms. Moran, their faces pasty looking, stood up and began singing Mr. Glass’s ritualistic music, some counting off various groups of numbers, others intoning the recurring drone bass on solfège syllables (la, sol, do).
“Einstein on the Beach” is more known about than known. This rare revival, part of a nine-stop, three-continent tour, with choreography by Lucinda Childs, is the work’s first presentation in New York since the 1992 performances at the Brooklyn academy. Though the piece, with sets and lighting by Mr. Wilson, is a landmark of avant-garde opera, it has a reputation for being incomprehensible and endless (at nearly four and half hours without intermission).
But as performed here, the opening knee play could not have been more calming and sweetly mystical. That it was already happening when the audience arrived made clear that we were all invited to enter and leave the theater at will. “Einstein” was not going away.
During the riveting first scene of Act I, “Train,” the mood changes completely. The music is suddenly exuberant and crazed, with spiraling riffs and cyclic instrumental figures, and manic bursts of syllables and sputtering from the chorus. Caitlin Scranton exuded eerie calm in the “Diagonal Dance,” in which she moved forward and backward over and over, looking statuesque and wonderfully strange. The scene is filled with curious characters, including a wide-eyed man in a red shirt doing mathematical calculations (Tomás Cruz).
As a boy, Einstein loved model trains. He later used trains as analogies to explain his theories. The dominant figure in this train scene is a young boy (Jasper Newell), who stands on an elevated bridge over tracks. He examines a luminous geometric shape in his hands and now and then tosses paper airplanes to the smoke-covered stage floor. Is he a scientist-to-be? Or young Einstein himself? Or just a boy in a mindless moment? With the chorus and instrumental music making this scene so frenetic and momentous, it seemed to encapsulate a larger message of this plotless opera: that scientific calculation, spiritual perceptions and a boy’s daydreaming involve not such different mental states as we may think.
In advance of this tour many critics and devotees of the Glass operas wondered whether “Einstein” would by now come across as dated or pretentious. But the piece seems particularly suited to current musical politics and social culture. In 1976 “Einstein” was seen as a combative declaration from the booming downtown scene directed against the established uptown culture, especially the complex, intellectual styles of contemporary music sanctioned within academia. Actually, at the time, Mr. Glass and Mr. Wilson were more interested in fulfilling their personal vision than engaging in polemics.
Even when “Einstein” was here in 1992, the scars from that contemporary music battle were still sore. Now those bad times seem long gone. Composers do whatever they want to. Audiences are open to everything. Performers champion all styles.
It was wonderful to see the brilliant violinist Jennifer Koh, whose repertory ranges from Bach to flinty contemporary pieces, throw herself into the bewigged role of the violin-playing Einstein. In a couple of scenes, especially “Knee Play 2,” the music is essentially a daunting violin solo with endless spiraling figures. Both Ms. Koh’s playing and her acting were gripping. Her participation seemed a testimony to the new openness. (Antoine Silverman takes over the role starting Wednesday.)
Today, maybe more than ever, “Einstein” comes across as an original, visionary and generous work, anything but polemical. There are certainly moments of ominous intensity, especially the apocalyptic final scene of Act IV, “Spaceship,” in which we are taken inside the vehicle that has cruised above the action in earlier scenes.
The music evokes the inevitable consequences of Einstein’s work: a nuclear blast. Cast members with their backs to the audience fiddle with blinking lights on a three-tiered control board as the accumulated sound becomes a hard-driving, breathless blur of indistinct, rapid-fire numbers backed up by threatening blasts from the swelling electric keyboards and frenetic woodwinds, all under the sure conducting of Michael Riesman.
Yet there is no anger in “Einstein.” In the “Night Train” scene, where we see (or so it seems) the young Einstein and his wife in a romantic moment on a train trip, the breathless vocal duet ends with the woman (Ms. Davis) pulling a gun on her mate (Gregory R. Purnhagen). But in the way she smiles and gloats the move seems just a play in a continuing gender battle.
The two trial scenes are highlights of the piece. Mr. Wilson blurs images of a laboratory experiment and a courtroom, with judges in wigs and witnesses watching with brown-bag lunches. On the floor before the judge is a huge, luminous bed. Many metaphors and questions come together here. A lab experiment is a kind of trial. Did Einstein dream up his theories at night? Did fears of the implications of his work give him nightmares?
In the second trial, Ms. Moran, playing a witness, lounges on the bed reciting over and over some incantatory words written by Ms. Childs, a riff about finding herself in a “prematurely air-conditioned supermarket” and seeing colored bathing caps. And, she explains, daftly, “I wasn’t tempted to buy one, but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.” Sometimes, such wandering thoughts are subjected to intense scrutiny in a trial. Eventually, her character turns into a weapon-wielding Patty Hearst, whose real-life trial was going when “Einstein” was created.
It is hard to know how to categorize this production. Since the sets of the 1992 revival were destroyed, this production meticulously reconstructs the original, with up-to-date lighting and technology. It includes the dazzling choreography for the opera’s two extended ballet sequences that Ms. Childs created for the 1984 revival and have been used since.
I am still not convinced that “Einstein on the Beach” would lose any of its mystical allure, vitality and wonderment if it were trimmed a bit. Maybe more than a bit. For musical richness, I prefer Mr. Glass’s “Satyagraha.” Yet “Einstein” invites you to let your mind wander. Plenty of operas have that effect without intending it.