Review: Radiant and Aging, Einstein on the Beach Still an Event After 35 Years

Monday, September 17, 2012 - 09:36 AM

'Einstein on the Beach' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 'Einstein on the Beach' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Stephanie Berger)

Like an eccentrically orbiting comet, Einstein on the Beach is again the object of fascination in New York in its fourth visit since its 1976 premiere, still ethereal with its bubbling Philip Glass score, dreamy Robert Wilson stage pictures and casual brilliance of Lucinda Childs's choreography. But in this 2012 revival, it arrives in a shifting artistic climate. When last at Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago, Einstein was an opera (for lack of a better world) from an alien planet. All of its creators had moved on, especially Glass, whose urban, densely packed minimalism has evolved into a manner resembling Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Now, the Bang on a Can composers are wringing even more minimalist mileage out of even less material than Glass ever did – Julia Wolfe, for one, is splitting atoms in her music – making Einstein a bit less exotic and less prone to inspire awe. What once seemed above criticism is no longer. The Sunday performance at the Brooklyn Academy, where the opera is performed through September 23, had plenty of patrons opting for the leave-and-come-back privileges offered during this four-hour-plus intermission-less piece. At times, the auditorium seemed to be having a low-grade fire drill.

Well, nobody said Einstein on the Beach was for everybody. Among its friends, though, Einstein isn’t so notable for its innovation as the seamless collaboration of three artists in the early-summer of their creative lives, all building their work on the same bedrock of minimalist simplicity and a belief that a dynamic art need not have the usual peaks and valleys, but can pour forth as one elongated event. In a sense, Einstein examines the same drop of water under three different microscopes simultaneously.

The piece still astonishes by doing away with boundaries that one still forgets are there: It’s theater with no plot, characters, arias, stars, meaning or even thoughts. In its place are thought patterns. Portraying Einstein himself isn’t a possibility; he’s off on the side playing violin (this time by the noted soloist Jennifer Koh). The 14 episodes have visual cross references but no linear connection. Texts are often numbers recited or sung by the chorus in plain white shirts with black suspenders, sometimes at warp speed. A locomotive comes and goes. We see a lunar eclipse. Your left brain takes a holiday. To say that Einstein lulls you to sleep is not necessarily an insult. You go where it takes you. It is pure in-the-moment experience.

Or so I thought after my 1992 first exposure. Without the thrill of first discovery in 2012, the Sunday performance was often satisfying in a way that only Einstein on the Beach can be. But entire scenes failed to gather momentum, such as the first trial scene, in which Wilson’s sight gags were merely quirky, and you began noticing visual variations on ideas that Wilson has better used elsewhere.

Though Glass's score could be aggressively annoying in the past, the composer’s keen ear for sonority has made later Einstein performances more about color than head-banging velocity. His choral writing is as astounding as ever, sung this time around with an effective light touch. But radiance comes at the price of clarity. The glory of Glass is that he sets up a punchy pattern and then throws in a hiccup – rhythmic, harmonic or melodic – that changes the music’s complexion. Too often on Sunday, the hiccup was buried. Some of the text hasn’t aged well, with a lot of naïve, confounding nattering about, of all things, Mr. Bojangles. Sorry, but surrealism has its limits. But would I go to see it again? All four-plus hours? Oh yes.

Stephanie Berger
'Einstein on the Beach' at BAM (Foreground: Jennifer Koh)
Stephanie Berger
'Einstein on the Beach' at BAM
Stephanie Berger
'Einstein on the Beach' at BAM
Stephanie Berger
'Einstein on the Beach' at BAM

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Comments [2]

Einstein (subdued) on the Beach
The current revival of Einstein on the Beach, the avant-garde landmark opus from 1976, is a beautifully recreated Fabrege Egg but an aural experience that lacked clarity, volume and punch. The dazzling score by Philip Glass was severely handicapped by an inadequate sound design, poorly miked and mixed vocals, a muddled bottom and a non-existent top. The absence of Kurt Munkacsi mixing the sound live was a major disappointment. However, since he is credited with the sound design, maybe it was better he did not show up.
On the plus side, Robert Wilson's beautifully recreated sets were lit with grace and subtlety, and the mechanics moved without a single hitch. Visually, it was simply magical. The performers were usually excellent but occasionally tentative, as if fearful of making a mistake while stepping through this masterpiece. The two lead actresses were so badly miked as to make their words unintelligible, even when there was no music. And that was a shame. Losing all those delicate, enigmatic non-sequiturs to a bad sound design was simply incompetent. The all-important chorus, adequate but undermiked, was alternately powerful and subdued. Their acapella Knee Play 3 was quieter than a whisper.
Having seen the original Einstein in 1976, the first revival at BAM, and at least 50 concerts of Philip Glass Ensemble in various forms since the 1970s, I know what the Philip Glass Ensemble should sound like. On Friday night, I was in the third row center of the orchestra and the sound was subdued to the point of sabotage. ACT I-Train was lackluster; its running bass line ressembling a train motor was lost in a packed condensed sound. In ACT II Night Train, the vocal duet was a disaster. Neither singer could be heard clearly and Philip Anderson did not seem to be able to get the words out. This lovely scene was a bust. ACT IV Spaceship was also less than thrilling. For a finale, it suffered from a fear of highs, despite its spectacular visuals. However, this particular sound mix made ACT II Dance with Field much more compelling than in any of the produced recordings. As the least interesting music in the opera, this section is when I usually exit for my intermission. But Friday, I sat through it and enjoyed its persuasive quietness, even if the dancers seemed nervous while executing Lucinda Childs' lovely twirls.
Modern audiences should hear a great work the way it was originally produced and played. Einstein should be loud, it should be played with fire and energy, the voices should be clear and separate and distinct, and the music should have clearly distinct highs and clearly distinct lows. The voices should be clear and the singers should sing. The power of the music was extremely diminished during this run of the show. Hopefully, Mr. Glass will set some parameters for the sound design on the tour. This sound was simply not good.

Sep. 23 2012 09:53 PM
Reed

Why single out Mr. Bojangles over the radio patter, Carole King fixation or any number of the bizarre poetic fragments? I'd argue that due to its direct connection to American music, both the country/folk rock of the opera's era, as well as the older African-American dance tradition, not to mention as the golden age of Hollywood, the Bojangles monologues are some of the most pertinent and least surreal in the opera. "Mr. Bojangles, I reach you" in particular seems like a straightforward invocation of a musical and physical force, a presiding spirit over the music and movement happening on stage. Let's not forget that Allen Ginsberg called Glass "Doctor Boogie."

Sep. 17 2012 02:59 PM

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