In practical terms, it is easy to see why it has taken Einstein so long to come to this country. The opera (although it is much more than that) is complex to stage, expensive to produce and very long — a five-hour spectacle from start to finish. But it remains fresh and innovative enough to justify more frequent stagings. The capacity audience at the Barbican Theatre certainly thought it worth paying £35-£125 to see it.
A joint concept between Glass and director Robert Wilson, Einstein consists of a set of distinct scenes — train rides, court trials, the exterior of a building, a bed, a space ship — interspersed with dance numbers and ‘knee plays’ in which speech and poetry combine with stark musical patterns. A solo violinist appears sporadically in the guise of Einstein himself, while the choreography is supplied by the celebrated Lucinda Childs.
The staging is daring — perhaps a little too daring. Several technical errors marred the experience. An hour into the performance an impromptu break was announced when a gantry on which a young boy had been standing, shooting paper aeroplanes, could not be correctly raised. When the audience reassembled about 15 minutes later, many seats were left empty. Robert Wilson himself appeared on stage to apologise for the glitch and to announce that the planned vertical and horizontal elevators would not be in full working order for the spaceship scene. All that was forgivable. But drop curtains that didn’t drop properly and stage hands visibly wandering in the wings were not.
Yet there was an unbroken mesmerising quality about the performance. Surprisingly few members of the audience took up the open invitation to come and go as they pleased during the remaining four-hour span; and of those that did, all of them came back. The sets were astonishing; the lighting superb; the two 20-minute ballet sequences breathtaking. And the performers’ molecular movements were fascinating — steps forward and back; cocked heads; bent elbows; frantic drawing in the air; fingers fluttering over imaginary stenographsOnly the music lacked a certain something. Perhaps it is because we are so used to Glass’ more recent output in the concert hall and on the big screen that we fail to appreciate the originality of this early ‘minimalist’ score for synthesisers, woodwind, violin and voices. That said, the repetitive musical patterns did unfold at an achingly slow pace, and the vocal singing was impressive only when one considered the stamina needed to keep up the (almost) never-ending flow of fragmented words, sounds and number patterns that underpinned the mathematical formula of the opera.
But there were some fine solo moments: Andrew Sterman’s beguiling tenor saxophone in the Building scene, and mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn’s solo turn in the ‘Bed’ scene. If you are looking for action and musical showmanship in the traditional operatic sense, you will be sorely disappointed. But if it’s an absorbing, if weird, theatrical experience you’re after, it will be five hours well spent.