Turn Up Volume: ‘Einstein’ Revisited On Blu-ray, DVD

The touring production of ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ with music of Philip Glass and direction by Robert Wilson, was
filmed at Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet in 2014. (Photo by Lesley-Leslie Spinks)

Glass and Wilson: Einstein on the Beach. Philip Glass (music, lyrics), Robert Wilson (direction, set, and light design), Lucinda Childs (choreography), Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson, Lucinda Childs (spoken text), Don Kent (director for the screen), Lucinda Childs Dance Company, Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman (conductor). Opus Arte OA BD7173D, 2-Blu-ray, or OA1178D, 2-DVD discs.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – The spectacular recent touring production of Einstein on the Beach, first seen in previews at Ann Arbor in 2012, amazed and conquered audiences wherever it landed. For its penultimate engagement at Paris’ Théatre du Châtelet in Jan. 2014, video cameras were ready and, thankfully, this production was recorded and released on pairs of Blu-ray and DVD discs. This act of preservation was important, for this production may have been the last time when the creators – Philip Glass, who turns 80 on Jan. 31, Robert Wilson, 75, and Lucinda Childs, 76 – would be able to reconstruct their radical original vision.

Glass, Wilson, circa 1975 (Betty Freeman/Film Manufacturers Inc.)

For the home viewer, though, the question is whether a high-definition flat screen and a good home stereo can re-create an overwhelming theatrical experience such I had when Einstein came to Los Angeles in Oct. 2013. The good news is that a lot of the rush does come through, and some of that can be traced to the conditions in which one would view this at home – assuming, of course, that one can play it at the desired full volume without giving the landlord or neighbors fits.

Expanding upon the Sony and Nonesuch audio-only Einsteins, which clock in at 165 and 200 minutes apiece, the total time of the video performance is a sprawling 264 minutes – about the length of your average Götterdämmerung – so you get the whole experience with the repeats intact. Those who know Einstein only through recordings will be surprised, for we hear the omitted 20-minute introduction for glacially-paced synthesizer bass while (in the Wilson manner) the musicians slowly enter the pit and people file into the incongruously ornate old Parisian theater,  chattering and milling around. At home, you can also chatter, mill around, or do something else, knowing that you’re just following the ground rules.

The staging features Lucinda Childs’ choreography.

Wilson’s scenes unfold in static, austere grandeur, colored mainly in various shades of blue. The Blu-ray picture quality is great, sharp as a tack. The big difference between video and live, though, is that we are at the mercy of director Don Kent’s jump-cutting decisions. This is true with all televised opera, but it is a drawback in Einstein, where the overall perspective is paramount, where there is no plot per se, and where all kinds of things happen, or are being said, at the same time. Einstein is a series of animated still pictures, and that leaves a lot of leeway for the audience in the theater to decide what to focus on, a choices we are here denied by the director.

Would that there were an alternative version wherein a single camera displays the entire stage throughout – but that might work well only on super-sized home screens. For details worth lingering upon, at least there is a pause button.

With the sound, though, the experience is pretty much what you get in the theater – better, actually, since you can control the volume and tone quality. Because the Glass ensemble is always amplified through the public address system, there are fewer variables at play, and the sound can be more satisfying at home than in the hall depending upon how good your system is. In any case, the sound on the Blu-ray version is superb, if recorded at a low level.

During the two dance sections, where the Lucinda Childs company sprints and prances all over the stage in abstract dances of joy, the results aren’t quite as eye-filling and overwhelming on the screen as they were in person, due to the jump-cuts. But they come close enough, and you can certainly recreate the audio part of the experience in full.

Ultimately, even on the flat screen, this production looks every bit as startling, tradition-shattering, and exhilarating as it must have been some 40 years ago when it was new. And for a final bit of advice on how to watch Einstein, I’ll leave you with Glass’ own comments in an interview within the handsome, blue-tinted, book-like packaging. “It’s autodidactic,” he says. “You learn how to see it by seeing it. The piece teaches you how to watch it. The piece teaches you how to hear it…. It doesn’t need any course to be given on it – it’s probably better not to have one.”

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.