`Einstein on the Beach': two views of a masterly revival. Music of Glass opera needs strong visual support
Robert Wilson and Philip Glass's ``Einstein on the Beach'' was given only two performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, yet the theater-music world was permanently affected. Whether one loved it or despised it, one reacted to it -- strongly. The piece left an indelible mark on the arts scene. Just before Christmas, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) staged a revival of the work that allowed a far larger crowd a chance to encounter the unique musical and theatrical vision -- to see what the to-do was all about. Some have called it an opera, but as with all of Glass's important theater pieces seen here to date, it needs the stage facilities of an opera house, without really being an opera.
Labels do not matter much in the case of ``Einstein.'' What matters is the unerring theatricality of Wilson's staging visions and the brilliantly detailed, masterfully crafted manner in which he puts them on a stage. I left BAM after the intermissionless 41/2-hour extravaganza haunted by many images. I cannot honestly say that the Glass music left an equally forceful mental souvenir, yet I can not imagine this particular piece functioning without that music.
As with the equally striking production of ``Satyagraha'' BAM mounted several seasons ago, Glass's music needs the strong visual counterpart to come into its own. His apparently simplistic sonic structures, so totally reliant on dulling repetition with minute, infrequent variations, forces the listener to slow down if anything is to be absorbed from it all. In the concert hall, that slowing down is hard to come by; staring at a bold, static visual image allows for that suspension of time frame. Perhaps that is why this so-called ``minimalist'' style is already being altered as composers discover that variety, complexity, and harmonic inventiveness are more beguiling than droning repetition.
Nevertheless, the Glass contributions to ``Einstein'' represent an important plateau in the composer's musical journey, clearly pointing the way to the opera ``Satyagraha,'' which remains, to these ears, his most evocative and touchingly human score to date. One may justifiably be put off by the composer's admission that most of the 41/2-hour score was composed in three hours on a dreary winter's night. Yet there is variety, color, interest, excitement, even drama, in all that repetition. And the drama does not derive merely from trying to ascertain how the players and singers remember which patterns they have to present, and when. In ``Einstein'' the perfomers either recite nonsense, sing numbers (``one, two, three, four/ two, three, four, five, six,'' and so forth) or the syllables of the solf`ege scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol). In ``Satyagraha'' Sanskrit was the basic language.
The drama emerges from the uncanny manner in which this apparently faceless music takes on a tangible quality with scenery and action. Coming to the CBS Masterworks recording of the score ``cold,'' it had little overall impact. Encountering the set (deftly trimmed to fit on four records) after seeing the BAM spectacle, one remembers simultaneously what was seen on stage.
What showed through on stage was a dedication to one man's vision -- Wilson's -- abetted by the engrossing choreography of Lucinda Childs, by the breathtakingly fine lighting, by production values that rival the best theaters in the world today. But one also must credit BAM for providing what appears to be the definitive environment for these pieces to come to fruition. And after the bungle of ``Akhnaten'' at the City Opera (in the Houston Grand Opera production), one is forced to conclude that only at BAM are these works properly staged, and only at BAM should they be seen.