Somehow the event felt symbolic. It has taken over 35 years for Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach to arrive in London and the long wait was surely right for an opera, five hours in duration and devoid of a story or anything resembling “action”, that seeks to challenge conventional notions of time in the theatre.
It clearly challenged Friday night’s audience. Telling people they were free to come and go during the performance encouraged some unexpected behaviour. Although few took up the invitation, others chatted over the music and the A-list celebrity in front of me spent the evening taking flash photos on her phone (except when she was asleep).
Was this what Glass and his key collaborator, director Robert Wilson, had in mind? Although it is not true to say that Einstein on the Beach sprang from nowhere – operas such as Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts in the 1920s and Nono’s Intolleranza 1960 had ventured into similar territory – it does owe much to late 1960s free thinking, common to Stockhausen and The Beatles. The key is the melding together of art forms. At its best Glass’s opera brings these various arts into perfect alignment: words and music are fused and find their visual counterpart in Lucinda Childs’s pure choreography and Wilson’s stylish modern stage pictures. But there are also long passages that are stultifyingly boring – like being an eight-year-old again, hammering D major arpeggios on the piano and wondering why life (and art) has to be such a chore.
The performers of this touring production deserve plaudits for their endurance, especially the lone violinist, dressed as Einstein. Unfortunately, Wilson’s visual conception is founded on a precision of delivery that was nowhere to be seen in this under-rehearsed mess. Several times the performance seemed near to collapse and once it actually did, brought to a halt for work on the stage machinery.
Glass has moved on since Einstein on the Beach. For all that it is good to see the opera as its creators conceived it, this show has little of the inspiring power of Satyagraha recently at English National Opera, or the irresistible allure of Orphée at the Linbury. It is one for the Glass aficionados – or British opera historians, who missed out in the 1970s.