Einstein beached on the Paris Plage

PHOf61d8cc4-7851-11e3-be87-e16971b4b8a2-805x453It’s generally considered a faux pas for concertgoers to fall asleep mid-performance. Certainly most composers would be offended to catch you napping as their opera plays out on stage. But most composers aren’t Philip Glass.

Even he could be forgiven for losing track of time in his marathon 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, which received its premiere in France at the Avignon Festival. “We didn’t even actually know how long it was,” the world’s most imitated living composer thinks back to the first performance 37 years ago. “The first night, it turned out to be about five hours!”

But when I nervously joke that he could have faded out at the 180-minute mark, he retorts that “the point of writing music and experiencing music isn’t to make people comfortable necessarily.” That said, audiences are permitted to zone out, nod off or take a breather outside as part of this immersive theatrical odyssey, which just finished its six-day run at the Théâtre du Châtelet for the Festival d’Automne, reminding Parisians that the doyen of American minimalism had what he describes as a “formation française” here under the strict tutelage of Nadia Boulanger.

In four-and-a-half hours, then — give or take — this iconic opera unfolds in hypnotic sensory overload. Rarely performed because of its length and the resources required, Einstein on the Beach was staged in Paris in the revival of Robert Wilson’s original blazing production. (The legendary director’s body of work was a linchpin of this year’s Festival d’Automne à Paris.) “The thing that brought us together,” says Glass of his collaborator and fellow iconoclast, “Bob,” “is that we experienced time, space and movement in a very similar way.”

Just don’t go expecting anything as conventional as a plot. One wonders what would happen if Einstein’s theory of relativity were applied to Glass’ and Wilson’s behemoth. The chorus intones endless strings of numbers; amplified instruments pulse with nervous energy; as the music hurtles through time, Lucinda Childs’ freeze-frame choreography creates the sensation that time might stop altogether. Einstein himself appears onstage as an amateur violinist sporting a curly grey-haired wig and cardigan, sometimes portrayed by a woman.

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But how does this extended meditation on life, the universe and everything fit in with the operatic tradition? “That’s a good question, and I’ll give you the truthful answer,” Glass explains: “We had no idea it was an opera!

“You could call the piece anything you wanted to, but the only place we could perform it was an opera house. People began to talk about it as an opera. It was a discovery for us as it was for everybody else.”

Glass did eventually turn to more traditional forms, including an opera about Ghandi, Satyagraha, in 1980, but “the people who liked Einstein were upset because they thought it was going to sound like Einstein. I disappointed them with Einstein and then I disappointed them again!” he chortles.

The most disappointed witnesses to the notorious 1976 premiere were “some older people who were really unhappy,” Glass recalls. “That’s a normal state of affairs. The younger people embrace it; the older people are kind of terrified that this was even allowed into a theatre.”

At 76, he’s now reached the age of those elderly complainants, observing how the work has evolved in the public consciousness. “It had a big effect, but the funny thing is that the reactions of the audiences today are not that different. And partly that’s because the rest of the world of opera didn’t change very much. People thought this was going to change the world. Well, it didn’t.

“The demands of the piece, I can see now, must have been very great on the players, on the performers, and on the audience. It must have been like crossing a bridge through a country that is unknown. We didn’t know where the piece was going – we were too much a part of it.”

No longer part of it as a performer, Glass finally has the luxury of relaxing and watching – if one can call it a luxury. “I was in the orchestra pit playing the piece every night. I never sat in the audience and looked at it. That happened to me very recently.

“And you know what? I really liked it!”

But try as I might, I can’t get him to admit to falling asleep.

Readers in Paris can watch the entire performance filmed live at the Théâtre du Châtelet

 

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

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Liberté, Égalité, Soeurité: Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

des_carmelites_jansenistes_1There is a wonderful moment in Olivier Py’s new production of Dialogues des Carmélites that sums up the composer Poulenc’s approach to music — and to life. While the stern young Sister Blanche scrubs the floors of the convent, her more carefree yet equally pious companion Sister Constance blows bubbles from a bucket of soapy water. Francis Poulenc, an openly gay yet deeply spiritual man who returned to Catholicism in his thirties after the traumatic death of a friend, was once described as moitié moine, moitié voyou (half monk, half rascal) and you get glimpses of this duality in his later vocal music: austere harmonies grounded in medieval chant, enveloped in lush orchestral sound and leavened by pungent, playful details.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death (overshadowed outside of France by the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner) with this stark yet elegant production of his second opera, which recounts the tragic history of the Compiègne nuns executed in 1794 as enemies of the French Revolution. Far from an obvious choice for a libretto, it lacks romantic interest and consists of long, sombre meditations on matters metaphysical. But its sense of encroaching doom, the conquering of fear and the acceptance of fate are universal themes, treated at times with unexpected, whimsical tenderness, as when the novices wonder if their Mother Superior was accidentally dealt too painful a death for someone who had served God so faithfully, like someone being handed back the wrong coat from the cloakroom.

Poulenc created the role of the high-born Sister Blanche for regal soprano Denise Duval, but would have been thrilled with the current French line-up, with the swooping, ethereal tones of Patricia Petibon’s volatile Blanche, Véronique Gens’s steadfast, velvety mezzo as the new prioress, the agonised death throes of Rosalind Plowright’s Mother Superior; although an indisposed Sandrine Piau’s Sister Constance was taken over by Anne-Catherine Gillet, I didn’t feel at all short-changed by the latter’s sparkling soubrettish tone, which provided much-needed lightness.

DeathThe interplay between light and dark guides Pierre-André Weitz’s bold, stylised staging, in which the nuns use simple props, during Poulenc’s musical interludes, to enact striking religious tableaux including The Last Supper. In the powerful, tour-de-force death scene of Act Two, Madame de Croissy’s bed is suspended vertically against the wall, casting sharp shadows, so that we see her suffering writ large like a crucifixion. And in the final scene, the fifteen singing nuns, clad in crisp white, stride single-file to their deaths — the unison voices cut off one by one by the chilling slice and thud of a guillotine in the orchestra pit — against a black backdrop illuminated by stars.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées celebrates its centenary this year alongside the Poulenc anniversary, and has mounted an exhibition in the opulent art deco foyer of Poulenc’s association with the venue, from his days as an enfant terrible in the group of French composers known as Les Six. The selection includes posters from their 1920s concerts, Poulenc’s contract for the commission of Dialogue des Carmélites, a manuscript of the work with music that never made the final cut, and the last known photo of the composer.

Poulenc said of his 1956 opera, “You must forgive my Carmelites. It seems they can only sing tonal music.” One can imagine him unburdening himself thus at the confessional booth, with a glint in his eye.