Glass Ceiling

Waiting for the
Saturday, Jan. 27 and Monday, Jan. 29
7:30 pm
Bass Concert Hall,
University of Texas at Austin
Tickets $15-$109,
Visits by Philip Glass to Central Texas, despite what one might expect, aren’t exactly once-in-a-lifetime events. To the contrary: If his appearances at U.T. Austin’s Performing Arts Center were any more frequent, we’d have to start thinking of him as the modern music world’s equivalent of The Nutcracker.

But of all the Glass events we’ve witnessed, in configurations ranging from solo piano to full orchestra-plus-multimedia extravaganza, one thing we haven’t had is an opera. (Or make that “a full-production opera,” as Hogg Auditorium did once host the opera Glass wrote to accompany Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et la Bête.) Much less an American premiere: Waiting for the Barbarians, first performed over a year ago in Germany, is quite a coup for the Austin Lyric Opera — and quite a challenge, as its staging was originally concieved for a theater with automation capabilities far beyond anything Bass Concert Hall can offer.

Seeing how ALO’s production team met these challenges turns out to be the event’s most compelling selling point, in fact, as the work underwhelms on purely musical terms. In aesthetic conception and technical execution, the design dazzles. The action weaves upstage and down through a set of jagged scrims that rise and fall independently — sinking completely into the floor to create a bare stage, inching up to evoke the peaks of a mountain range, or sweeping suddenly ceilingward to obscure the actors entirely.

At the top of the viewer’s field of vision, body-sized parcels dangle from ropes. Presented dramatically when the curtain first rises — in the reddish light, they evoke glowing chunks of amber or the pillars of flame seen in oilfields by Gulf War soldiers — they soon recede into the rafters, waiting like ghosts to be deployed later. Just beneath them, an elaborate mesh system swells here and there into crater-like openings. In one of the production’s most impressive moments, this mesh squeezes down upon the actors while the backdrop sinks accordingly, transforming the open stage into a wide but claustrophobic frame that’s almost Kubrickian.

The film comparison isn’t idle. Barbarians’ production echoes the cinema from the opening scene (when the mesh construction’s slow rise suggests a camera descending beneath the surface) to fade-out techniques involving the play of light on scrims, and even a wordless sequence that imagines a brutal beating in slow motion.

A “brutal beating”? Yes. The composer who gave us Einstein on the Beach turns this time out to American history that isn’t just recent, but ongoing: While Barbarians was published in 1982 and attracted Glass’s attention at the start of the ‘90s, its adaptation here (with libretto by Dangerous Liaisons author Christopher Hampton) thickens thematic ties to the war on terror. The story’s villains are military men who cloak their identities with dark glasses and randomly imprison indigenous people on vague suspicions. Early on, they torture a man to death in front of his son; unsurprisingly, the son confesses to any plot his captors suggest. The echoes of current events go further than the ethics of prisoner abuse. At one point, an officer responds to the suggestion that his war is ill-conceived with the eerily familiar line, “We’re not in the business of retreat.”

Political themes aren’t the only familiar things here. Anyone who has heard much of Glass’s music might guess that large chunks of the orchestra’s score have simply been lifted out of previous compositions; as for the singers’ lines, there is very little that’s memorable enough to make listeners wonder if they’ve heard it before. Old-school opera buffs hoping for anything resembling an aria will be disappointed, but even those with a more liberal conception of operatic conventions may scratch their heads in the face of a fairly pedestrian setting of notes and rhythm to Hampton’s words. (The case isn’t helped much by the lead performers, who with the exception of mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala aren’t particularly commanding.)

In recent years Glass has done his most effective work for film — where his music lurks behind the action, amplifying tension and swelling with menace, but rarely responsible for whipping up drama on its own. By comparison, Barbarians is cold, except in some transitional moments when the stage action goes blank and the score veers from Glass’ characteristic chords into territory evoking an older era of film music, perhaps that of Bernard Herrmann.

Strangely, Glass makes little use of the chorus, who spend most of their time (when they sing at all) ooh-ing and ahh-ing in the wings. Being offstage is a handicap for them and the orchestra as well, as Bass’ acoustics tend to muddy the mathematical precision any of the composer’s pieces demand.

The man himself attended the January 19 premiere, taking a center seat about eight rows from the stage. The spot gave him an excellent opportunity to gauge those acoustics for his next visit to U.T., though it spared him the sight of the rows and balconies behind him, where a not-insubstantial number of listeners slipped away at intermission — perhaps hoping, as I did, that his next appearance would be more like one of his first: an intimate solo piano recital, where vintage compositions couldn’t be upstaged by a production more imaginative than the music it’s supposed to serve. 

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