PHILIP GLASS & ROBERT WILSON: Einstein on the Beach, Blu-ray (2016) 

by | Dec 31, 2016 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Still Philip Glass’ most important work in a stunning production!

PHILIP GLASS & ROBERT WILSON: Einstein on the Beach, Blu-ray (2016) 

Production: Chatelet Theatre, Paris
Performers: The Philip Glass Ensemble/The Lucinda Childs Dance Company/Antoine Silverman, Helga Davis, Kate Moran/Michael Reisman (cond.)
Robert Wilson (stage director)/ Don Kent (screen director)
Studio: Opus Arte (2 discs) [10/28/16] (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 1.33:1 (4:3) color
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1, PCM Stereo
Length: 263 min.
Ratings: Audio: ***1/2  Video: **** 

Like it or not, Einstein on the Beach remains Philip Glass’ most defining work. It is what gave him a large amount of name recognition and – at the time – ‘word on the street.’  I first became aware of Einstein in 1976, mainly by reading new music journals. I quickly bought the vinyl set of the original cast recording on the now defunct art label, Tomato Records, which I still have to this day.

Einstein on the Beach is the work that paved the way for Glass’ work going beyond the small and somewhat sparsely attended concerts of his ensemble (of which I attended several) to his film scores such as the still powerful Koyaanisqatsi and the more “true” opera, Satygraha.  It is not really fair for a listener to think of Einstein in particular as an ‘opera’ in the conventional sense. It is a series of visual tableaux, separated by what Glass called “knee plays” that depict in a very symbolic sense aspects of Albert Einstein’s work, his theories, his philosophies and even his violin playing pastime. There is no narrative and, therefore, no libretto as such.

It is also not correct at all to think of Einstein on the Beach as solely a Philip Glass work. In fact, it simply cannot be appreciated by listening just to Glass’ hypnotic, swirling, pervasive and very ‘minimalist’ score (stunning to those like me; perhaps tedious to others) without the visual component of this work; this production in particular. This opus is as much a monumental masterpiece by the visionary and minimal stage designer Robert Wilson; whose work I have seen and been transfixed by several times. It is also an absolutely virtuosic piece of dance – it is a “dance opera” really – by Lucinda Childs and her amazing dancers.

I had the very good fortune of seeing this same production by the Los Angeles Opera in 2012 and it was performed as Glass and Wilson intended – four and a half hours straight through. Audiences were allowed, not encouraged, to take breaks and wander in and out but the hard core (of which I am one, I admit) stayed admiring the sound, the sight, the virtuosity and the spectacle.

This video is of the highest quality. The sound is just a bit reserved in places, especially some of the ‘stream of consciousness’ monologue; taken in part by Robert Wilson from the interviews and sessions he had with an impaired student, Christopher Knowles. The video is brilliantly clear and even Wilson’s characteristic monochromatic hues of blue seem vibrant. I think maybe it helps to know Glass’ music well enough to realize what a technically difficult score this is. Huge kudos to violin soloist/Einstein Antoine Silverman and to the chorus members who handle the long, repeated and punctuated syllabications of Glass’ music with amazing skill.

If you already know and love Einstein on the Beach this is simply a ‘must have,’ If you have never heard it or heard of it before, be adventurous and open-minded. Try it. It might make you a lover of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s artistry as it did me forty years ago.

—Daniel Coombs

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