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Review: In 'Einstein on the Beach,' everything is grandly relative

The magnificent 'Einstein on the Beach' by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson finally reaches the West Coast, and what a glorious spectacle it is.

October 29, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Helga Davis, left, and Kate Moran perform during a dress rehearsal for "Einstein on the Beach."
Helga Davis, left, and Kate Moran perform during a dress rehearsal for "Einstein… (Stephanie Berger / Brooklyn…)

BERKELEY — The magic is back. Boy, is it ever.

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson created "Einstein on the Beach" in 1976, and neither music nor music theater — including, and especially, opera — has ever been quite the same since. Glass' score, which made him famous, can be heard on complete recordings made in 1976 and 1992. Wilson's images, which made him famous, have been widely reproduced. That has been enough for the opera to have become the most influential of the past 50 years.

But only in the theater can Glass' hypnotically repetitive music and Wilson's mythically evocative staging and sublime lighting become the transport of a mystical experience. When the original "Einstein" was given at the sold-out Metropolitan Opera in New York for two special performances 36 years ago, many of us walked out of the theater into a changed world. The street sounds were newly charged. Neon lights looked like living art.

And yet far too few have been afforded that chance for such changed perceptions. The opera was twice revived in New York by its creators, the last 20 years ago. This year Glass (who is 75) and Wilson (who is 71) have undertaken it one final time, magnificently polishing its music and staging for a world tour begun last March in France. Over the weekend, the opera finally reached the West Coast, with three sold-out performances in Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley. It moves on to Mexico City, Amsterdam, Asia, Australia and ends, maybe — just maybe — in Los Angeles next fall.

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The "Einstein" run here was historic, and the Bay Area knew it. Even the colossal excitement of the World Series couldn't diminish demand for this addictive spectacle. On Saturday night, scalpers were asking $600 a ticket, some selling to people who had seen it Friday and were desperate to return.

The form of the work, which lasted a little over four hours Saturday and was performed without a break, is quite simple, even banal. A series of Einstein-inspired images are transformed over four acts, as the opera moves through the span of Einstein's life, from steam engines to space travel. A train, for some reason, becomes a building. Everywhere there are Einsteins. A solo violinist is dressed like the scientist. So is the chorus and so are many on stage.

There is a trial with a bed; the bed finally abstracted as a bar of light ascends, at a snail's pace, into space to the accompaniment of swirling organ. A spaceship approaches until, at the climax of the opera, we are inside it, lights whirling, the music ecstatic, a jaw-dropping moment in the history of opera staging.

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It all means what it means to you. In Glass' score, subtly changing repetitive patterns create an atmosphere for emotion rather than expressing explicit emotion. Wilson generates a theatrical atmosphere in which word, image and movement (including Lucinda Child's exciting choreography) function with equal independence. You are not asked to feel how Einstein felt. You are given, instead, space to be your own Einstein.

Everything is, you might say, relative. The texts, for instance, are neither sensible nor nonsense. The chorus sings either the numbers of its meters or solfège syllables of its pitches.

Two actresses (Helga Davis and Kate Moran) in the entr'actes that Wilson calls "Knee Plays" recite texts that were written by an autistic teenager, Christopher Knowles, in a kind of post-Gertrude Stein, post-Beat, stuttering stream-of-crazy-consciousness with brilliant fluency.

Thanks to Knowles, weird allusions to contemporary 1976 culture get thrown into the Einsteinian brew. One is Patty Hearst's kidnapping, which happened to take place a few blocks away from the Zellerbach performance.

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This latest "Einstein," though identical to the original, looks and sounds as never before. Wilson's lighting has the benefit of today's technology. The chorus is a fluid, fluent marvel. The startling virtuosity of solo violinist Jennifer Koh takes the score to a new level. The dancers are a dream, demonstrating Child's soaring choreography to be as meaningfully apposite to Glass' music as Balanchine's was to Stravinsky's.

"Einstein" suffers from description; it needs to be seen. Cal Performances went out on an impressive limb to present it, booking the performances and then attempting to raise the approximately $1 million it costs.

Now it is our turn. Los Angeles Opera is reportedly eager to bring the touring production to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance has demonstrated willingness to help sponsor the enterprise, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been invited to contribute. But cautious L.A. Opera is looking to raise the $1 million first, then commit.

That, though, is pre-Einsteinian thinking. Relativity tells us that time slows down the faster one travels. We need to move quickly, then worry about paying the bills. Remember, Einstein was always right. The same goes for "Einstein."

mark.swed@latimes.com

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