Luminato 2012′s Einstein on the Beach reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

June 9, 2012. Sony Centre, Toronto.

Luminato is participating in the third revival and world tour since the 1976 première of this Wilson/Glass/Childs opera Einstein on the Beach. Luminato’s artistic director, Jorn Weisbrodt, gave a pre-performance illuminating introduction, whose message was a bit like the Buddhist Heart Sutra: No opera, no libretto, no story, no Einstein, no beach— 4 and a half hours of it.  And like the Sutra, Weisbrod’s message was liberating in the sense that you were encouraged to leave at any time, stay away as long as you needed to, re-enter at your pleasure, and no to worry because you wouldn’t miss anything. All true.

Einstein on the Beach is said to be the first abstract opera. We are witness to a series of nine 20–minute tableaux, separated by shorter interludes described as “knee plays” by the creators because they join acts that are loosely, to say the least, connected. It’s easier to think of ‘Einstein‘ as a continuum of sound, energy and virtuosity—as a fusion of music, theatre, electronics, dance, song and spoken word, combined with ultra-imaginative staging.

To give you a sense of the elements, first is the music (which was almost the last thing written). The instrumentals are hypnotic. They include Glass’s relentlessly minimalist electro-techno tracks, circling arpeggios, rhythmic oscillations that subside into drones and rise into a Bachian organ toccata that seems to repeat endlessly till you begin to catch the subtle variations that actually move the music forward by endlessly deferring resolution.

Among the unforgettables are virtuosic solos by Jennifer Koh dressed to signify Einstein enthroned throughout the performance on stage or above the pit, giving frenzied, virtuosic displays of violinism, somehow referencing shreds of Bach’s E major Partita. The closest we came to music that sounded like music used to was Andrew Sterman’s tenor sax solo that brought us close to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Spoken dialogue and arias, also hypnotic, mirror the score: anti-lyrical phrases set to empty syllables, solfège, numbers, or autistically fragmented texts, stories that go nowhere, and recurring images of sailboats and trains (Einstein loved them, apparently). Shredded into the mix are references to The Beatles, Carole King and “Mr Bojangles” that give you the strangest feeling because they are familiar, as if you were coming out of a Paris Metro station and ran into the family who lived next door in your old home town.

The elements of spoken dialogue and dance sequences mirror the score in the way they use repetition, layering and variation. Dialogue passages are repeated over and over, and layered on top of each other. The level of concentration required to sustain repetition, participate in layering, and execute variation defies imagination. No one impressed more than Kate Moran in her tongue-twistingly repeated “I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super-market” sequence. I can still hear in my mind’s ear the life she brought to each repetition of the word “fresh.”

The action, so to speak, is in the style of living tableaux . The cast are mostly dressed as Einstein, in white shirt and trousers with suspenders. Movements incline towards robotic gestures – sharply curved elbows, convulsive kicks and unnatural angles that are enigmatically compelling. Dances performed by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company to Childs’ choreography) mirror Glass’s  patterning in their complex sequences of movement. Semaphore signalling gestures are combined with graceful, flowing episodes of group dance and activity moving at velocities that might suggest atoms inside the Hadron Collider.

Above all is the spectacle of Robert Wilson’s staging. His carefully curated images and characters conjured as if by enchantment a train, a bus, a courtroom, a panoptic tower all filled with characters engaged is ceremonially ritualized gestures. His mastery of minimalism includes lighting technology such as the massive sculptural bar of light which imperceptibly rotates through ninety degrees to the vertical before it slowly disappears through the roof.

The effect of this induces sequences of feeling that include interest, speculation, tolerance, boredom, relaxation, indifference, paranoia, insight, more speculation, intense concentration, the urge to flee, exit strategies, actual exits, taking refreshment, feeling trapped, conned, liberated, deeply moved, irritated, agitated, provoked, inspired, grateful, in awe, lost in admiration, calm, and finally, satisfied.

As somebody was overheard to say, on the way out, “I wouldn’t want to sit through that again, but I’m glad I saw it.” To which I add this songword: “Unforgettable.”

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