The historical significance of Einstein on the Beach is not in doubt. It is a confirmed cultural landmark, the signal work of a late renewal in the operatic form: non-narrative, structured around striking visual tableaux and epic in its ambition to mythologise the repetitions and routines of modern, metropolitan life.
But is this latest revival, just short of 40 years after the original premiere, something of a souvenir piece? The high-art equivalent of stalwart indie rock bands touring their 'debut album in full'?
No. This is a production that enthrals and engrosses, that dazzles and confounds; it is funny and epic and extraordinary, and it is still very much alive, performed here with the energy and conviction of a team that knows that what it is doing cuts through. On opening night, after four and a half hours without an interval, they had the full house on their feet. No wonder it recently won the Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production in London.
Without any central story or character, the opera progresses through the steady repetition of motifs and signatures, in the score and the design and the choreography, but also, memorably, in the text, a kind of nonsensical "found" poetry:
If you see any of those baggy pants, chuck the hills.
And if somehody asked him, it was trees
These repetitions rise up on composer Philip Glass's roiling and intricately patterned variations, almost reaching, but never quite, a kind of consecration of the ordinary.
It's stages are the jailhouse, the courtroom and laboratory, the bed and the office block. Busses and trains and spaceships figure prominently. Although there isn't really much evidence of a mathematical mind behind the design ‑ an algorithm-aesthetics ‑ the impact of modern science on daily life is everywhere noted. In as much as the title has any special relevance to what unfolds, it is in the Einstein-figure, the violinist Antoine Silverman, in big white wig and droopy moustache, whose chair above the orchestra is always in a spot light.
Four and a half hours without intermission sounds like a big ask. (Actually, the audience is invited to leave and re-enter as desired, but that means you have to push past up to 26 other paying patrons, in the dark, in order to get to an aisle.) And yet the tempos of the work have a fascinating magic to them. Even after 3 hours, it is as if only half that time has passed.
This is Philip Glass's first ‑ and some might argue only ‑ masterpiece, the apotheosis of American compositional minimalism. Though not quite transcendental, except maybe in a rhetorical sense, the score does suggest a kind of wondrous dreamscape in which, with the gradual layering of pop music progressions, classical music techniques and modernist experiments opening onto a unique sonic vision of the post-War West. In this production, the Philip Glass Ensemble give the vision a lush, large body. Key vocalists Helga Davis and Kate Moran, as well as mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, are outstanding. Andrew Sterman, tenor saxaphone, gives provides lively sort of musical intermission.
At the level of pure technical accomplishment, it's hard not to be at least somewhat agog at Robert Wilson's direction. He manages to infuse traditional opera elements, Lucinda Childs' ballet-inflected choreography, stadium rock effects, minstrelsy and modern poetry while retaining a spare monumentalism, always memorable in its composition.
And yet the power of this work ‑ the thing that still speaks to us in the twenty-first century ‑ the really poignant and moving thing, is perhaps the way it captures the busy but repetitive thrum and bustle of modern life, while also suggesting the vague feeling of alienation or occasional absurdity that comes with it, but without making a tragedy or a tribute. Anyone who has ever worked in an office building, in a bureaucracy, in the legal system or the health system or any kind system, will feel a deep sympathy with Einstein.
Amid the semiotic scramble of the libretto, which is like a collage of fragments overheard on the train, the repeated phrase "It's like that" seems to catch us up as we realise, suddenly, that, yes, "it" really is like that: inexplicable, repetitive, beautiful, alive.
This masterpiece won’t be in town for long and simply cannot be missed.