10 May 2012

Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican

There is a real risk that this review will fall off a ledge of extreme adjectives as it about as special as an event can get.

All Philip Glass operas are special, and all too rarely performed, and Einstein on the Beach is extra special as it runs non-stop for almost five hours. This is quite a barrier for performers and audience alike so it is an even rarer beast than other Glass operas.

Hence this was the UK premier and a lot of the publicity beforehand focussed on the endurance aspects. Interviewed on Radio 4, Philip Glass said that it was OK to fall asleep during the performance as when you wake up it will still be on.

Einstein is also difficult to classify and while it is generally classified as an opera this is only true as far as it is a staged performance of classical music that has singers. The problem with calling it an opera comes with the lack of a story, the lack of traditional songs and the heavy reliance of visual imagery.

The safe reference point is the music. This is Glass at his repetitive best with the extended performance allowing the main sections to expand in to new spaces.

The thing about repetition is the more repeats that there are the greater the impact.

The repetition spreads out from the music to define the performance.

The libretto has repetition at all levels. Words and phrases are repeated within a scene and themes repeat across scenes. So we have the famous repeating of numbers for long periods and also references to things like Mr Bojangles at several points.

In my favourite scene, the verse "I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket and there were all these aisles and there were these bathing caps that you could buy that had these kind of Fourth-of-July plumes on them that were red and yellow and blue, and I wasn't tempted to buy one, but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach." was repeated many times.

Similarly, the visual repetition came through repeated movements within a scene and with repeated images across scenes. In the first main scene one of the performers walked diagonally back and forth across the stage with slight variations in line and head movement etc.

Repeated images included the clothes (white shirt and grey trousers), trains and metal furniture.

The two dance scenes also mode use of repetitive patterns. In the first individual dancers crossed the stage from one side to the other doing a loop along the way, and in the second they danced as a group repeating shapes.

Einstein on the Beach is not the easiest music to listen to, I'm fairly certain that I've never managed to play it all the way through, but that is because the music tells only part of the story.

When you add the staging it becomes an event that glues you to your chair in awe of the artistic feast laid before you.

The combination of the music and the movement was enthralling, thrilling, captivating and spell-binding and very few people took advantage to come-and-go during the performance.

Five hours may sound like a test of endurance but it flew past and far too soon we were all cheering and clapping loudly.

The raucous applause became even louder when Philip Glass himself joined the cast on stage to take a much deserved bow and to bring this incredibly special event to a close.

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