In 1976, American composer Philip Glass redefined opera for the 20th century with Einstein on the Beach, a four-hour, dreamlike performance event with a nonsensical libretto and a minimalist, relentlessly cyclical score. Satyagraha, a somewhat more conventional opera inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to oppression in South Africa and India, followed in 1979. Akhnaten, which loosely traced ancient Egypt’s evolvement from a polytheistic to a monotheistic society, completed the composer’s so-called ‘Portrait Trilogy’ four years later.
The State Opera of South Australia has now, unusually, programmed all three operas together in three complete cycles. Nobody seems to know for sure, but it is probably only the second time the Trilogy has been performed collectively anywhere in the world. It is the end point of a project begun in 2002 when State Opera SA, Leigh Warren & Dancers and Adelaide’s Vocal Project collaborated on a workshop-style production of Akhnaten. Discrete productions of Einstein and Satyagraha followed over the next five years.
Most of the creative personnel involved in those scaled down versions have returned to recreate and reimagine their previous efforts — most notably, conductor and chorus master Timothy Sexton, director and choreographer Leigh Warren, set and costume designer Mary Moore, and lighting designer Geoff Cobham. Her Majesty’s Theatre’s proscenium layout doubtlessly necessitated many changes but it is to be regretted that the running order of the operas was not amended to reflect the order in which they were written; chronological sequencing would have given audiences a clearer sense of Glass’s trajectory from the uncompromising minimalism of Einstein to the more orthodox, if still distinctively Glassian, operatic stylings of Satyagraha and Akhnaten.
There is no question, however, that Akhnaten makes for a suitably dynamic opening to the cycle. Director Warren has shifted the action from the Eighteenth dynasty Egypt of the Robert Wilson-directed original to a contemporary, museum-like setting in which past and present overlap. There is a pyramid onstage but it is, tellingly, inverted, and ends up being split in two midway through the production by a giant solar array (Akhenaten, the pharaoh for whom the opera is named, was a heretical champion of Aten, the Sun God).
The performers playing Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti, Tobias Cole and Cherie Boogaart, double as a well-heeled couple who appear to blast open the present’s links with the past through corporate manoeuvrings of a possibly dubious — at the very least ruthless — nature. In this conceptual arrangement, the chorus becomes the voice of the ancient world, the dancers the museum’s artefacts brought to life and the Scribe (Adam Goodburn) a combination of archivist and narrator.
None of this, while the opera is in train, matters very much. Like all of Glass’s works for the theatre, there is little in the way of plot and what action there is, always slowed down almost to the point of inertia, is profoundly impressionistic. The scenes are isolated set pieces — coronations, funerals, meetings between lovers — with no especial narrative thrust. The libretto is drawn from an eclectic range of historical sources, much of it sung in unsurtitled Egyptian, its function a suggestive rather than illustrative one. Warren’s choreography, which sees the black-clad dancers in almost constant motion, is similarly elusive, although its referencing of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics is clear.
Cole and Boogaart, meanwhile, combine masterfully; their love duet in Act II, its text taken from a poem discovered in a royal mummy of the Amarna period and sung in Egyptian, is perhaps the highpoint of this production. The part of Akhnaten, reflecting the pharaoh’s famously androgynous appearance, was set for countertenor, and Cole’s startlingly high and honeyed rendering of the role reminds us of Glass’s canniness as a composer for the human voice. Boogaart’s mezzo-soprano range, the female equivalent of the countertenor, intertwines strikingly with Cole’s, the combined motion of their vocal lines alternatingly complimentary and countervailing. The effect, like that of Glass’s darkly melodic, intensely rhythmic score more generally, is enthralling.
Einstein on the Beach is an altogether different beast. In contrast to Akhnaten’s comparatively spry pace and modest two hour, 40 minute running time, it unfolds over a glacial four hours. It is meant to be performed without an interval, its audience free to come and go as they please, but Warren’s extensive choreography has in this production made several breaks necessary — two 20 minute intervals in addition to a one hour, 45 minute dinner break. I worried initially that these stoppages might interrupt the opera’s mesmeric flow but I think, if anything, they allowed for a fuller appreciation of the work’s sweeping abstractions.
It is never entirely clear, from moment to moment, what is happening on stage. Music critic Alex Ross, in his essential guide to 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise, summed up Einstein’s ‘plot’ in this way: ‘Singers chant numbers and “do re mi”; a Civil War-era locomotive inches across the stage; a cryptic courtroom scene features an elderly judge speaking poor French; an Einstein figure saws on a violin; a dancer soliloquizes about the “prematurely air-conditioned supermarket”; the lineup of the New York station WABC is recited; three of the four Beatles are named (no Ringo); a beam of light described as a bed tilts upwards for twenty minutes; and some sort of spaceship arrives at the end.’
If anything, this version is even stranger than that tantalising précis would suggest because its stark choreographic saturation wipes out much of the bold, exaggerated theatricalism of Robert Wilson’s original staging. The train is just the chorus with linked arms moving across the stage; there is no courtroom, the opera’s trial sequences enacted by chorus members Michael Denholm and Kristen Hardy who do not don wigs or robes; Einstein never makes an appearance; the spaceship is, again, summoned up by the chorus who, in the opera’s penultimate scene, swing light bulbs around the darkened stage. Beyond a number of mysterious floating objects such as a black slab and a series of neon tubes, there is little in the way of stage decoration. This is Glass as filtered through Grotowskian poor theatre.
It is not completely successful. The emphasis on comedy in the spoken word sections — such as in David Cox’s Paris Text, during which a travel guide-style soliloquy on the wonders of the City of Light is conceived as bawdy farce — feels misjudged. Rebecca Jones’s endlessly repeated monologue on the ‘prematurely air-conditioned supermarket’ also strikes a wrong note, Jones trying too hard to create an identifiable character, a sort of up-state snob, which works against the fundamental absurdity of both the words she is speaking and the work as a whole.
The opera is at its most enjoyable when the virtuosity of the dancers and chorus is at the fore. The latter is superbly well drilled, rarely stumbling in their unremitting, highly demanding rota of numerical sequences (1234, 123456, 12345678) and solfège syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti). Einstein uniquely exposes Glass’s use of additive rhythms, whereby a phrase is altered by the addition (or subtraction) of one or two notes at a time. It is a challenge that is met by both the chorus and the small ensemble of musicians, especially organists Nerissa Pearce and Andrew Georg, who appear onstage throughout the opera.
The dancers are equally impressive, Warren’s physically intensive choreography always pitched between the organic and the robotic; repeated, clockwork-like gestures echo the score’s excessive uniformity and carry a hint of the fear of modernity’s authoritarian potential with which the opera is infused. Lastly, special mention must be made of Geoff Cobham’s supremely fluid and sympathetic lighting design. His use of mirrors here — as well as his employment of crisp new LED and Moving Light technology throughout the whole Trilogy — is both inventive and beautiful.
Finally, we come to Satyagraha, created by Glass for the Netherlands Opera who, intrigued by Einstein on the Beach, were keen to know if the composer could write a ‘real’ opera. They may have been left wondering. Satyagraha, while somewhat more orthodox than Einstein, is no Tosca: it is sung in Sanskrit (a beautiful, Italian-like vocal language, according to Glass); the orchestration contains no parts for brass or percussion, just woodwinds, strings and one electric organ; the chorus fulfils a much larger role than is usual for an opera; and the composer’s rhythmic principles remain the same, the music still built around those almost imperceptible, single-note variations. What is different is that Satyagraha does tell a discernible story and, unlike Einstein, places its central character at the heart of the action.
The opera’s three acts, which are concerned with Gandhi’s formative years and the development of his philosophy of peaceful resistance, take their titles from thinkers and writers who were of importance to Gandhi: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. Throughout the acts, we see Gandhi burning his ID card in South Africa and inciting others to do the same; the publication of the provocative Indian Opinion in 1906 (honoured in this production by a memorable scene in which reproductions of the newspaper cascade from the ceiling and are handed out to audience members by Adam Goodburn’s Gandhi); and the famous Salt March of 1930, an event not specifically referenced by Glass but deemed a necessary inclusion by Warren. The music, not as drone-like as that of Einstein, or as strident as that of Akhnaten, is underpinned by a surprisingly classical technique: the baroqian chaconne, a short, repetitive bass line.
Moore’s raked set, an allusion to Gandhi’s ascent towards enlightenment, effectively maximises the presence of the chorus who, largely replacing the dancers who have packed the stage during the previous two operas, are used extensively. They portray both Gandhi’s supporters and detractors, the latter of which including an angry mob who, in Durban in 1897, would have torn him to pieces had it not been for the intervention of a parasol-wielding Mrs Alexander (Deborah Johnson), the wife of a high-ranking police officer.
Tenor Goodburn reprises the role of Gandhi mostly successfully, his hairless skull and close-fitting spectacles gleaming redolently throughout. His voice, notwithstanding an unfortunate moment during the final scene when a sustained note saw it waver badly, is consistently strong, its timbre warm but engagingly fragile. Boogaart impresses again as Kasturbai, Gandhi’s wife, and Mark Oates and Joshua Rowe combine powerfully in the opening scene in which Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna, key figures in the Bhagavad Gita (from which Satyagraha’s libretto is drawn), debate the merits of action and non-action in times of conflict. Action, surprisingly, wins out; it is left to Gandhi himself, over the course of the next two hours, to argue the case for the latter.
Of the three operas, Satyagraha probably least engaged me. Glass’s score, certainly, is occasionally transcendently lyrical, but Warren’s severely reduced choreography seems to have left a vacuum that the chorus, as proficient as they are, are not able to fill. Looked at as a whole, however, the Trilogy warrants high commendation. The undertaking is not only a mammoth one — something like 200 creatives and crew have been involved in its making — but also artistically risky, given that other recent revivals of Glass’s work have faced accusations of datedness. It is a risk that, I think, has amply paid off, each opera remaining a challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. The music, if anything, feels timeless rather than passé, still fresh after three decades, and still capable of making both fierce detractors and defenders of its listeners. These productions, thanks largely to the shrewdness and dedication of Warren and Sexton, should serve to enliven the debate around Glass’s importance as a composer, and to remind us of opera’s unrivalled ability to stir passions of all kinds.