The Philip Glass Ensemble performs Einstein on the Beach

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Philip Glass
LABELS: Opus Arte
ALBUM TITLE: Glass
WORKS: Einstein on the Beach
PERFORMER: Christopher Knowles, Samuel M Johnson, Lucinda Childs, Antoine Silverman, Helga Davis, Kate Moran; Lucinda Childs Dance Company; Philip Glass Ensemble/Michael Riesman; dir. Robert Wilson (Paris, 2014)
CATALOGUE NO: OA 1178D

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Pleasing, mesmerising, irritating… While devoid of explicit emotional expression, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach provokes many responses over its four-and-a-half-hour duration. Still fresh and fashionably futuristic, it parades with conviction the minimalist techniques that Glass had arrived at in 1975 through his involvement with the avant-garde downtown scene in Manhattan. As such, this immaculately realised revival, filmed in Paris in 2014 and lavishly packaged, is a living monument to a work that marked the arrival on the world stage of a soon-to-be stratospherically successful composer.

Directed by co-creator Robert Wilson and featuring choreography by Lucinda Childs, the nine connected 20-minute scenes, in four acts separated by ‘Knee Plays’ (or entr’actes) are stylishly and authentically realised. Its four principal vocalists – Kate Moran is vocally and visually particularly arresting – and choir cope admirably with the fiendish demands of Glass’s now trademark repetitions of solfege, syllables, numbers and short sections of poetry. Dressed in predominantly crisp whites and greys, they perform against Wilson’s beautifully lit backdrop of steel blues.

But what does it all mean? Its three main scenes – Train, Trial and Field/Spaceship – and violinist (Antoine Silverman), who resembles the scientist, nod to Einstein’s theory of relativity and his unified field theory; but beyond that it’s hard to say, as Glass’s ritualistic Gesamtkunstwerk eschews traditional narrative. The Philip Glass Ensemble’s playing is vibrant, and the dancers’ robotic, angular movements are captured by film-maker Don Kent in high-definition detail – the overall effect is simultaneously alienating and immersive. In a digital world in which we all slave to the algorithm, his opera’s visions of human subservience to numbers seems chillingly prescient.

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Nick Shave