Philip Glass: The Lost, Landestheater Linz, 19 April 2013

I have very little knowledge of, and normally no interest in, the world of opera, but on this occasion I found it impossible to resist the enticing prospect of a new work by Philip Glass, with a libretto by ageing Austrian literary enfant terrible Peter Handke, being shown in the magnificent setting of the brand spanking new Musiktheater in Linz. I figured a little bit of self-education in this most baffling of genres wouldn’t do me any harm. I also knew Glass wouldn’t be there in person, but that didn’t matter too much (although I’m still smarting from his failure to show up at the Barbican for Einstein on the Beach last year).

In all honesty, though, I’m not sure I’m any the wiser having sat through 2¼ hours of Spuren der Verirrten (which seems to be going by the English title The Lost, although even I with my imperfect German can tell it should be “Traces of the Lost”). The opera was visually dazzling and brilliantly performed, but Handke’s determinedly opaque text (handily translated on a little screen in front of me) made it more or less impossible for me to fathom out what was going on from one scene to the next. Trace elements of the Austrian’s longstanding preoccupations were there right from the start. In the arresting opening, a character known only as the Spectator entered the audience, bawled them out and was filmed doing so; a reference to a goalkeeper followed shortly afterwards.

As the opera went on, the Spectator made occasional reappearances to comment on the action, such as it was. For the most part, the evening consisted of baleful dialogues on war, tragedy and death, sung by various characters from the large cast. These were played out against a constantly changing backdrop of stunning visual images, ranging from the disturbing (row upon row of hospital beds) to the playful (a huge Austrian scene with hares, alphorns and dancers in Tracht). Beautifully lit in deep saturated hues, the massive revolving stage swarmed with activity as crowds of singers and dancers surged around the leads. The effect was mesmerizing, although Handke’s libretto would remain incoherent to the end.

As for the music, it was quintessential late-period Glass: swirling, heady and blissfully romantic. The hypnotic repetitions that dominate early works like Einstein on the Beach and Music in 12 Parts (which I’m very much looking forward to seeing in the Czech Republic later this year, by the way) were still there but softer, more tender and more mutable. Played with glowing artistry by the Bruckner Orchestra under long-time Glass acolyte Dennis Russell Davies, Glass’s score was the emotional heart on which this labyrinthine opera depended for much of its impact. As if in recognition of this, the finale saw the entire orchestra transplanted to the stage, while the cast took the orchestra’s place in the pit, furiously mugging the movements of the players. It was a deliriously joyful ending to this strange, fascinating evening.

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