Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Theatre, 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.

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