Tuesday, March 12, 2013

REVIEW: Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Sunday March 10

This production has been to several places already and a lot of things have been said also. In fact, when I was in Amsterdam in January, same production was there. Personally, my introduction to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach was accidental and innocent… or rather ignorant. I love musicals and my love for opera and classical music all stemmed from it. When I have already exhausted the musical section of the music shop, I would go to the opera section and start checking out whatever English titles it will have hoping that I will find the likes of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In this quest almost twenty years ago, I found the likes of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Thomas Ades’ Powder Her Face and Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.

It was, however; Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach that I found most perplexing as I just don’t understand it! With the other recordings, there was a nice booklet with a “comprehensible” synopsis and the libretto, but for Einstein… I just can’t find a storyline… because there’s none. Being me, I became obsessed in trying to understand it and it was not easy during those days when there was no internet and no Wikipedia! However, it didn’t take long before I give up in finding a storyline but instead just simply listening and enjoying it. It also didn’t take long before I bought the Laserdisc of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Glass’ CD of the same title (I have already started to explore non-English titles at this point). I tried to play the video with the audio muted while listening to the Philip Glass’ CD through my Discman. Needless to say, it was hard work as their speed were very different; and it was such a relief when the DVD of the film came out with Philip Glass' complete opera synched to the film on a separate audio track.

I have never seen Einstein staged before and my excitement was really more about finding out how peculiar the whole thing will be. At this point, I was really more attuned to it being a “show” rather than an opera. The fact that the score can accommodate a different staging; but it was decidedly affixed to Robert Wilson’s original concept, makes the “soundtrack” a slave to the Wilson’s theatrical images.

Visually, Einstein was no less abstract. One can’t really figure out much about Einstein or his works except that perhaps he loved trains and paper planes, he played the violin, and his works has something to do with nuclear bomb. While seating in the theatre though (I had two toilet breaks), I felt that I was seeing a period piece. There was more nostalgia rather than amazement on the significance of the work; and I suppose that it should be, after all this was concocted in the 70’s. The experience also pointed out how ordinary the sound and concept is in today’s world where video games played loudly in street and train (not to mention ringtones) have the same electronic repetitive quality to them especially in busy and packed Hong Kong. Well, they may not have the same sophistication as Glass’ harmonic and rhythmic progression; but they have somehow conditioned my immediate and instinctive reaction to such sound from neutrality to annoyance.

The performance highlighted though the very high level of commitment and concentration needed to pull the whole show through; and when something went wrong, it reminded the viewers how fragile the spell and focus can be. The extended tenor saxophone solo by Andrew Sterman (his over enthusiasm produced some painful notes) and soprano solo by Hai-Ting Chinn (marred by suppressed coughs), though not perfect were still very much welcomed diversions. For some reason, every time Antoine Silverman (looking like Einstein) is on his seat playing the violin, the term “carpal tunnel syndrome” kept crossing my mind. His unbelievable constancy was beautiful yet painful to look at. On the other hand, it also crossed my mind that if all automated answering services in Hong Kong use featured performers Helga Davis and Kate Moran’s voice, it would be a way less stressful city! The Lucinda Childs Dance Company executing Lucinda Child’s choreography was a showcase of indefatigable concentration. The vocalists and the ensemble under Einstein veteran Michael Riesman gave the score the consistency (and sometimes with additional push) it needed to fuse all the different elements together beautifully.

Now, I can say, “been there, done that.”
An Opera in Four Acts
by Robert Wilson - Philip Glass
Produced by Pomegranate Arts, Inc. Linda Brumbach, Executive Producer

Creative Team:
Music/Lyrics: Philip Glass
Direction/Set and Light Design: Robert Wilson
Choreography by: Lucinda Childs
Spoken Text: Christopher Knowles/Samuel M Johnson/Lucinda Childs
Lighting: Urs Schöenebaum
Sound: Kurt Munkasci
Costumes: Carlos Soto
Hair/Make-Up: Campbell Young Associates: Luc Verschueren
Music Director: Michael Riesman
Co-Director: Ann-Christin Rommen
Directing Associate: Charles Otte

Cast includes:
Helga Davis
Kate Moran
Antoine Silverman
The Lucinda Childs Dance Company
Music Performed by The Philip Glass Ensemble
Conducted by Michael Riesman

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