Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Geneva Grand Théâtre, 14 September 2019; In the Penal Colony, Geneva Salle du Lignon, 6 September 2019

In recent years Philip Glass seems to have reached new heights of popularity and pre-eminence, cementing his status as the world’s greatest living composer. Now in his 83rd year, Glass is performing sell-out concerts in Europe and North America, while his major operas are regularly performed at the world’s leading opera houses. Bolstered by a relentless stream of posts on his social media accounts (not by the man himself, needless to say), it’s clear that an awful lot of people are coming very late indeed to Philip Glass. The days when I sat among half-empty audiences in London and my home town of Salisbury at Glass concerts, even with the composer himself present, are long gone.

In a further sign of this ever-growing recognition, a Glass opera was chosen to reopen the splendid Grand Théâtre in Geneva after extensive renovation work lasting three years. And, gratifyingly, it wasn’t a relatively safe choice like Akhnaten or Satyagraha that they went for, but Glass’ most demanding and difficult work, Einstein on the Beach. Like the original 1976 production, which I saw revived in London in 2012, this new Einstein was billed as the joint work of Glass and Robert Wilson. There was, however, precious little sign of Wilson’s original visual concepts for the opera in this version by the Swiss theatre director Daniele Finzi Pasca. This openness is of course mandated by the official notes to the opera, which state that “the producer has two options: to reproduce the original Robert Wilson production (which exists on videotape), or to create a new series of stage and dance pictures based on themes relating to the life of Albert Einstein.”

Whereas Wilson’s stage designs were steeped in formalist rigour, all space, light and surface, those of Finzi Pasca leapt out at the viewer with a vivid, haunting intensity. Scene after scene left me slack-jawed in wonderment, the visuals forming a dreamlike and ravishing accompaniment to the dizzying spirals of Glass’ score. There are too many highlights to mention, but the most memorable images included Einstein’s assistants filmed from above, their onstage movements projected onto a massive screen which made them seem to be climbing, falling and floating at will; the lovely water nymph in a long, flowing orange dress, her graceful underwater movements watched impassively by a beautiful white horse; the forest of interlacing tubes that glowed in many colours as they glided smoothly around the stage; the gorgeous shadowplay of cyclists and mermaids as they crossed and recrossed the stage as dancing silhouettes; and the bathers on the beach, playing badminton, wrestling with deckchairs and crabs, throwing beach balls and juggling in remarkably expert fashion. (Was Finzi Pasca aware, I wonder, that juggling also formed part of the stagecraft at the ENO’s triumphant production of Akhnaten which I saw in London three years ago? If not, it was a remarkable coincidence.)

As for the music, it was filled with everything I’ve come to love about Glass. Swirling and eddying with immense mathematical precision, it seemed to embody the paradox of the opera’s title and of that time in Einstein’s life which inspired it: that a man of such formidable intellect could be found among the endlessly rippling tides of the seashore.1 The choir and musicians, made up of students from the Haute École de Musique de Genève under the direction of Titus Engel, responded magnificently to the considerable demands placed upon them by the score. The sung texts, consisting mainly of numbers and solfège syllables, were delivered with breathtaking vigour and stamina, while the music (including sublime solos for violin and saxophone) held me rapt for every second of the opera’s four-hour duration. Although the producers were at pains to emphasize that members of the audience were free to come and go as they wished, I for one remained rooted to my seat throughout.

A few days earlier, I’d kicked off this mini-Glass festival in Geneva with a visit to far-flung Lignon to see a work that was new to me, his chamber opera interpretation of Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony. I wasn’t bowled over by this one, to tell you the truth. The score, played expertly by a string quintet of musicians from Geneva’s Ensemble Contrechamps, was as refulgent and animated as any late-period Glass, but I quickly became bored and then irritated by the onstage movements of the two singers and their constant shifting, like besuited removal men, of two large mirrored crates-cum-video-screens exactly into place. Meanwhile, the libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer (who also wrote the screenplay for the film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, fact fans) and the excerpts from Kafka’s text read by a disembodied voice offstage were gruelling stuff.

Finally, a word on the ticketing arrangements for Einstein, which frankly bordered on the farcical. From the moment this event was announced, I was aware that it was both part of the La Bâtie festival and also a regular production of the Grand Théâtre of Geneva. On the morning tickets went on sale, however, the GTG’s website had no link to any ticket-buying portal. I therefore bought them from the La Bâtie website, naturally assuming that there was no other source to be found. Having gone through the ticket-buying process and been relieved of a not insignificant sum of money, I discovered to my displeasure that the tickets I’d bought were not for individually numbered seats but were for unspecified seats within a block, and were to be exchanged for numbered tickets on the day of the show. When I turned up at the Grand Théâtre for the show, I was shocked to find that the tickets I’d been allocated were way off to the side of the auditorium, seats I would never have chosen if I’d been given the opportunity to select individual seats. Only after I’d bought tickets did the La Bâtie website give the information that it was also possible to select seats on the GTG ticket portal, by which time it was too late.

Note

1. See Einstein’s Long Island Summer of ’39:
https://www.longislandpress.com/2013/02/01/einstein-on-the-beach/

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