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GLASS: Einstein on the Beach

DVD Button Davis, Moran; Silverman, Newell, Williams; The Philip Glass Ensemble, Riesman; The Lucinda Childs Dance Company. Production: Wilson. Opus Arte OA1178D (2 DVDs)/OABD7173D (2 Blu-rays), 264 mins., no subtitles

The Key Glass

The legendary, extraordinary Einstein on the Beach gets a video release.

Recordings Einstein on the Beach hdl 517
Step and repeat: ensemble at the Châtelet
© Marie-Noelle Robert
Recordings Einstein DVD Cover 517
Critics Choice Button 1015 

EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH  is the ultimate Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk—a total synthesis of art forms. Philip Glass’s music, Robert Wilson’s staging and design, Christopher Knowles’s text and Lucinda Childs’s choreography are so integral, to one another and to the whole, that a new production of Einstein is impossible to imagine (though Achim Freyer did try in 1988). However, revivals of the “official” version are rare—three since the 1976 premiere. It’s unfortunate that most fans of this genre-defying audiovisual spectacle were, for the past forty years, limited to the three music-only recordings and never had the immersive Einstein experience. But this DVD, filmed at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet during the 2014–15 international tour, may be the next best thing. Not only is it the first time the opera has been released on video; it’s the first unabridged recording, at a whopping four hours and twenty-four minutes. 

In lieu of a conventional plot, the opera is organized around a series of dreamlike tableaux composed of recurring visual motifs from Einstein’s life and research—clocks, compasses, beams of light, trains, spaceships and an atomic explosion. This strange world is populated by dancers, singers and actors all dressed in identical Einstein outfits. Over seemingly endless expanses of time, they engage in repetitive, enigmatic activities. A little boy throws paper airplanes from atop a tower. A couple in eveningwear shares a romantic encounter on a train caboose. Someone stands trial for—something. But what it all “means” is inconsequential; Einstein is about ritualistic theatrical processes designed to both mesmerize and challenge the viewer. Wilson’s nearly static tableaux unfold so slowly that tiny gestures—the flash of an eye or the twitch of a hand—jump out as dramatic moments. Video director Don Kent was wise to privilege long shots of the full stage, reserving close-ups to highlight these minute changes.

The score is also rooted in subtly shifting processes. Contrary to popular belief, Glass’s brand of minimalism is not just the same thing over and over again. Patterns are set up and transformed ever so slightly—a pitch added here, or a beat subtracted there. This demands intense concentration from the musicians. The twelve-member chorus, singing computer-like series of numbers and solfège, maneuvers these fluctuations with clear tone and machine precision. Glass’s music doesn’t always suit the voice; at some points, the singers are required to inhale while pronouncing the text syllable, lest they disrupt the pattern with something as human as breathing. The Philip Glass Ensemble, led by long-time collaborator Michael Riesman, exhibits similar assembly-line stamina; ostinatos of flute, saxophone and synth move along at conveyer-belt speed, reducing these instrumental artists to laborers. But there are passages of lyricism and emotion that transcend the impersonal, factory-like atmosphere. The gentle a cappella choral number in “Knee Play 3” is laden with nostalgia and bittersweet harmonies. The awe-inspiring Act IV, Scene 2, consists solely of a giant white bar of light that gradually moves from a horizontal to a vertical position, finally ascending and disappearing above the stage. This bizarre ceremony takes on almost liturgical sacredness, accompanied by a religious-sounding organ and pure-voiced mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn’s plaintive vocalise.

In spite of the abstract scenario, there are some individual “characters” in Einstein who act as guides, leading the audience through this alienating postmodern landscape, like the White Rabbit in Wonderland or Virgil in the Inferno. Actresses Kate Moran and Helga Davis appear together in nearly every scene, addressing the audience directly with fractured poems by Christopher Knowles. Davis pronounces these incoherent texts, rich in pop-culture allusions, with an NPR matter-of-factness that tricks you into thinking you’re hearing something perfectly logical. Moran, on the other hand, is flirtatious and delightfully mischievous, flashing winks and suggestive smiles during the iconic monologue “I was in a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket.” Charles Williams, as Mr. Johnson, and child-actor Jasper Newell, as his assistant Boy, inject some well-needed comic relief with silly voices and funny faces. Einstein himself overlooks the proceedings in the form of agile violinist Antoine Silverman, who dons a scruffy wig and moustache to portray the fiddle-playing physicist.  —Joe Cadagin 

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