Review: Einstein on the Beach

Einstein on the Beach. Barbican Theatre May 2012.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved
‘Einstein on the Beach’
(Barbican Theatre, 10 May 2012; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Epic, visionary, spectacular, mesmeric – this stunningly original production – first staged 36 years ago – has not only stood the test of time, but has grown with time, as Philip Glass (composer), Robert Wilson (director) and Lucinda Childs (choreographer) acknowledge.

Einstein is an elegant, engrossing fusion of music, dance, song and spoken word, combined with ultra-imaginative staging. A continuum of sound, energy and virtuosity, it swept the audience along in its fast-flowing tide – there’s always something happening, never the feared dull moment that the much vaunted 5 hour, Wagnerian duration threatens. As Wilson has stated, although the opera is based loosely on the ethos and impact of Einstein, pacifist and splitter of the atom, ‘you don’t have to understand anything – it’s the sort of work you can go into and get lost – that’s the idea.’ It was also ‘ he says, ‘the first time opera music was composed around the stage set.’

The production has a freshness and immediacy, not the sense of a traditional revival – in fact Wilson says that lighting technology has moved on to enhance the original intent. This sits well with key aspects of the staging – such as the massive sculptural bar of light which imperceptibly rotates through ninety degrees to the vertical before it slowly disappears through the roof.

Glass’s ensemble is perfectly attuned to the score’s densely layered undercurrents, which resonate with the complex patterns of the scientific universe. Solo violinist, Antoine Silverman, who takes on Einstein’s persona, draws out reflective passages drawing on gypsy rhythms and reels. The spoken word, based primarily around Christopher Knowles’s architecturally structured libretto slips from light humour to the deliberately banal and the obliquely profound.

Glass’s powerful score includes space for a lengthy and fiery jazz tenor sax solo extemporisation by Andrew Sterman – who’s been part of the Philip Glass Ensemble for 20 years and has credits with Sinatra, Dizzy and Aretha – beautifully played against the rolling, rumbling, hypnotic Glass ‘soundtrack’. Jazz meets Glass! Glass is, of course, a huge jazz fan, and seeing Coltrane on numerous occasions at the Village Vanguard made a major impact on him.

Childs has explained that the choreography originally ‘stepped outside the dance vocabulary to include pedestrian movements’. Robotic semaphore signalling gestures are combined with graceful, flowing episodes of group dance and activity so fast-moving that it might be taking place inside the Hadron Collider! The demands on the performers are considerable, the execution is impeccable.

It is on at the Barbican for another 3 days – beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket!

Categories: miscellaneous

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