Einstein on the Beach: Opera Review

For a work that is now 37 years old, "Einstein on the Beach" remains challenging and utterly modern.

One of the most famous but little-seen American high art totems of the modern era, Einstein on the Beach, alit in Los Angeles for the first time for three performances over the weekend. Presented by L.A. Opera and defined as such by its creators, it is less an opera than an acute sensory occasion, an uninterrupted four-hour-plus cascade of pulsating Philip Glass music, extraordinary stage pictures courtesy of Robert Wilson, arresting movement and choreography by Lucinda Childs, and meanings that percolate, confound, sometimes bubble to the surface and often elude. For a work that is now 37 years old, it remains challenging and utterly modern. And quite something to behold.

Between its debut at the Avignon Festival in 1976 and the present incarnation, Einstein has been mounted just two other times -- in 1984 and 1992 -- and had ever been presented in the United States only in New York City and at Princeton. The 2012-14 tour started in Ann Arbor and made 10 previous stops (including Toronto, Brooklyn and Berkeley in North America) before the Los Angeles engagement. At this point, the only remaining destination is Paris in early January, and, as Wilson and Glass are both in their 70s, there can be little doubt that this will be the last time the venture will be undertaken by its creators.

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What Einstein would be like interpreted by other hands is as puzzling as the most abstract and abstruse interludes in the work itself. Even now, this is a piece in which the spectator is neither encouraged nor expected to find literal or even symbolic meaning in anything in particular; one is advised just to go with it to avoid frustration and the accusation of being too conventionally minded. Why does a big locomotive steam engine come on- and offstage? Why do we spend several minutes watching a large illuminated beam be raised with agonizing slowness from a horizontal to a vertical position? What is the relevance of the two big courtroom scenes? What does Einstein being on the beach have to do with anything? Why is David Cassidy referenced numerous times? Did Clint Eastwood get his idea about the empty chair from the conspicuous one here?

As an Einstein virgin, these and dozens of other odd notions entered and collided within my head while I eventually settled into a state of what I can best gauge as moderate bliss. To a great extent, the mellow mood is created by Glass' score, which runs up and waterfalls down scales in endless repetitions that are nonetheless subtly altered and staggering to consider when being played onstage by violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh (made up with wild hair to resemble old Albert, a fiddle player himself), who concludes her tour de force by sticking out her tongue at the audience.

Glass' relentless arpeggios and propulsive energy creation, I decided in due time, represent the audible correlative to the constant bombardment of atoms, the nature and potential of which Einstein was forever weighing. The furious violin playing is the musical equivalent to Einstein's writing of formulas, while the assertive jazzy sax solo that ultimately erupts out of the mass of churning sound is Einstein's mental breakthrough and the explosion of the nuclear age.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the secret of Einstein, what binds it together and makes it cohere, is the push-and-pull between the ultra-discipline and order of its artistry and the inchoate nature of its subject. Once I embraced the experience on those terms, much of the work seemed clear and the mysteries remained, well, mysteries. And exquisitely rendered ones at that, in a production where not a note, gesture, word, glance, prop, lighting cue or effect was out of place.

Dates: Oct. 11-13

Venue: L.A. Opera

Director: Robert Wilson

Set and lighting designer: Robert Wilson

Music and lyrics: Philip Glass

Choreographer: Lucinda Childs

Conductor: Michael Riesman

250 minutes