There is a peculiar way in which Einstein on the Beach resists critical discourse. The infamously plotless opera contains so many scenes that defy explanation that to even try to describe them, you risk sounding ridiculous or pretentious or both. Maybe this is why reviews of the production tend to be so polarized, expressing unconditional love or unequivocal disgust. Deeper analysis that might invite nuance or ambiguity rapidly lands you in the realm of the absurd.
But things happen in Einstein that are at least possible to describe, and it’s worth trying to figure out what might give this work its strange power. Because it is strangely affecting, maybe even transformative. I finally had the chance to see it this Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and while it didn’t quite live up to the cumulative hype that I’ve been subjected to over the years, I’m not sure anything could.
For one thing, Robert Wilson’s visual design is impeccable. Some of his images are so instantly iconic, like the tall brick building against blue sky, that I can’t figure out if I’ve seen them before or not. And there’s an extraordinary, almost synesthetic connection between the visuals, movement, and sound. The balletic interludes choreographed by Lucinda Childs, where the patterns in the music and dance seem to be practically identical, stand out in this regard. But there are other synesthetic touches too, like the book-reading figure constantly shaking his head, or the furiously typing court clerks who seem to be synchronized to the fastest arpeggios. Not to mention the various characters who scribble figures in the air, writing on an imaginary blackboard or perhaps spellcasting in time with the music.
Oddly, I find that I have relatively little to say about Philip Glass’s music on its own, maybe because others such as Kyle Gann have already written about it so extensively and eloquently. More often it’s the way that music is used that grabs my attention. The fact that the organ’s bass line (A! G! C!) is already playing when we walk into the performance space suggests that the barrier between the world of Einstein and our own is permeable. I appreciated the ability to move freely in and out of the hall as desired, which I took advantage of once. The music was also pumped into the lobby and hallways, and I enjoyed passing through zones of variable sound quality, meandering through a forest of bandpass filters. With this accompaniment, it’s a bit like you and the other concertgoers are part of the work too, silently waiting in line for the restroom or walking to and fro along lines of hidden navigation.
The text often seems like an afterthought in this opera. At least on Sunday, the volume levels were inconsistent, with some speakers strongly resonant and others almost lost. (An older woman in the row behind me kept asking, “What did she say? I don’t understand!” She didn’t make it to the end of Act I.) The densely patterned, mesmerizing poems of Christopher Knowles are a natural match for the additive rhythms of minimalist music. The texts by Samuel M. Johnson don’t fare nearly as well. I still don’t know what to make of the judge’s speech in the first trial scene, in which he preaches about women’s liberation in a screechy falsetto that’s played for laughs. It mostly reminded me of Kate Beaton’s Straw Feminists. There’s not enough context for me to tell if it’s meant to be critical or sympathetic, but regardless, today it comes off as tone deaf and awkward.
Johnson also wrote the story about lovers on a park bench that is read over the final Knee Play, and I’m apparently one of the few people who have a visceral distaste for this beloved ending. What I find interesting is that, even among those who love it, there’s disagreement about what it’s there for. Some (like the LA Times’ Mark Swed) find it sincerely meaningful, while others find it ironic, a deliberately vacuous attempt to summarize something inexplicable. I think that both interpretations reflect poorly on the work—the former is painfully mawkish, the latter is pointlessly cynical. The reality is probably somewhere in between, and I have to give it credit for that balancing act, but it still rings false to me. The opera has already brilliantly succeeded at melding the familiar and the strange; why do we need a speech to put a button on that? It also puts a sudden teleological spin on the rest of the opera, which is exhilaratingly freeform until we’re railroaded into this destination. The penultimate, climactic spaceship scene may be partly to blame for that, but it’s hard for me to judge that scene too harshly, with the glorious sci-fi high camp of its flashing lights and floating glass coffins.