Einstein on the Beach

This revival of the famed Philip Glass-Robert Wilson plotless opera at BAM is worth seeing even if it doesn’t all add up.

A scene from <i>Einstein on the Beach</i>
A scene from Einstein on the Beach
(© Lucie Jansch)

At four-and-a-half-hours-long,
Einstein on the Beach — the famed Robert Wilson-Philip Glass project now being revived at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House —adds up to slightly less than the sum of its multiple parts. Still, so many of those parts are knock-your-eye-and-ear-out effective that anyone interested in what seriously playful artists can really get up to are obliged to take in the plotless opera.

Admittedly, the temptation is strong, as sequences accumulate, to figure out what the creators are saying about Albert Einstein, the beach, and/or any number of other ingredients. But Glass’ point is to give yourself over to the piece and take from it what sticks and leave the rest. (Moreover, it’s also clear that Wilson, Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs have no problem with patrons taking the occasional break.)

While stamina-propelled Michael Riesman conducts Glass’ orchestral music, chorus members (led by Kate Moran and Helga Davis) in white shirts, black trousers with black suspenders, and running shoes appear several times mostly to chant the numbers one to eight or the do-re-mi scale.

Their turns introduce, and then serve as, interludes between vignettes that may or may not have to do with aspects of Einstein’s life and theories. (More than once, trains figure in, probably because the great Princeton scholar frequently invoked trains as illustrations that time is relative.)

But reconciling some of those segments with the one where a groom and bride sing robot-like in the back of a caboose — and the lady pulls a revolver on her spouse —isn’t easily accomplished. Nor are a pair of courtroom segments immediately clear, the second of which has Moran repeating a dream about being in a “prematurely air-conditioned supermarket” (this is a Childs contribution) where she isn’t tempted to buy bathing caps but admits to “avoiding the beach.”

Perhaps more meaningful is the late interval where cast members on three-levels of scaffolding look to be adjusting light-emitting diodes on a spaceship that eventually takes off in miniature. While it’s possible this relates to what Einstein’s mind wrought, Childs’ pair of ballets – mesmerizing as they are – don’t tie into anything thematic.

As the show’s fourth hour comes round, a scrim is dropped with lots of writing on it about the atomic bomb. This is clearly a bow to Einstein’s “E=mc squared” formula, but the image comes across as a lame way to lend weight to the ambitious enterprise. Even less successful is a closing anecdote that truly jeopardizes one’s belief in the intellectual capacities of the opera’s manufacturers.

Yet, even though Einstein on the Beach may be flawed, it still stands up to the shifting sands of time.

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