There was a tingle in the news. UCLA’s Royce Hall, shut for over four years of earthquake repairs and retrofitting, was to reopen its doors with a most newsworthy event: a major collaboration between those blithe, innovative spirits, director/designer/poet Robert Wilson and maximally renowned minimalist composer Philip Glass, together again but for the first time hereabouts.
You have to know some history. In 1984 Wilson had created a vast entertainment called The CIVIL warS, with a reason for the orthography that I no longer remember; Glass was one of the participating composers, and the entire work — something like 15 hours — was to be the centerpiece here of that summer’s Olympic Arts Festival. The project fizzled through lack of both funding and press support. A few years later, when Michael Blachly became head of the UCLA Performing Arts Center, he made it known that he would battle hell, high water and the graybeards in the school’s music department to bring in the one unassailable masterpiece of the Glass/Wilson collaboration, the 1976 Einstein on the Beach. Again, no dough, no go. Now, at last, Los Angeles has its first Glass/Wilson production; if you come upon it cold, unaware of their previous accomplishments, you just might wonder why anyone bothered.
The ultimate impression left by Monsters of Grace 1.0 (“A Digital Opera in Three Dimensions”) is that of a rummage through the discards of creative artists who approached the new project at less than full strength: Glass, with yet another slice of the now-famous motoric burblings of his electronic orchestra over which a melodic line wanders prettily but aimlessly; Wilson, with the striking but glacially slow-moving stage pictures and light-show effects that stamp his uniqueness (but which also brought him boos for his staging of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Lohengrin).
Even the division of labor is strange; Glass provided both words and music, Wilson the “design and visual concept.” The sensuous love lyrics of the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi form the text, flattened into colloquial English in Coleman Barks’ translation and intoned by singers in the pit in close harmony reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters. Wilson’s designs — translated from his storyboards into 3-D film by video innovators Jeff Kleiser and Diane Walczak and therefore requiring an audience to don special glasses as we did 45 years ago for the legendary Bwana Devil and House of Wax — come across like a retrospective of his Greatest Images from the past. Seeing them in 3-D was, of course, a hoot; there’s one great moment when a table, laden with beautiful small bowls and decorated chopsticks, seems to hover in the air within reach. But we’ve been there before.
At a panel before Wednesday’s performance, Wilson attempted a brave face on the work, with exaggerated praise for the freedom gleaned by working with film rather than live stage action. To admirers of his previous work, however, this comes over as a perverse decision; the glory of his stage work is exactly the interplay between live action and innovative lighting, innovative stagecraft — above all, light. Even the title Monsters of Grace trivializes the undertaking — it originated, says Wilson, as a slip of his tongue while reading the “ministers of grace” line from Hamlet. He found it amusing; does anyone else?
The full title, in fact, is Monsters of Grace 1.0; computer aficionados will recognize the 1.0 as suggesting software in a preliminary version. Of the 13 scenes in the Glass/Wilson scenario, only seven had been completed on film for the Los Angeles run; live dancers and actors — including
6½-year-old Cooper Gerrard trudging the stage in nicely controlled slow motion — filled in between the segments. The plan is to replace the live-action episodes with more Kleiser/Walczak film for future engagements — there are 10 co-commissioning venues — thus moving the work ever further from the realm in which Robert Wilson’s genius best operates.
Monsters of Grace may, in fact, be the world’s first self-constructing — and, simultaneously, self-destructing — opera. As a celebratory piece to reopen a concert hall famous for its acoustics and its stage amenities, a work mostly on film and with all its sound emanating from monster loudspeakers (and only half-finished at that), it provided its star-studded opening-night audience with more questions than answers — chief among them: Why? The hall, at least, is gorgeous.
As it happened, the Wilson/Glass monstrosity wasn’t the only new stage work in town with operatic inclinations and a plot line more complex than your basic boy-meets-girl. Daniel Rothman’s Cézanne’s Doubt, which had its local premiere at the last of this season’s Monday Evening Concerts at the County Museum, is a strange and strangely moving exploration into the tortured mind of the great painter, the conflict that played out in him between expression and order. Rothman’s hourlong chamber opera draws its texts from Cézanne’s letters and remembered conversations, and from the mystical Baudelaire poem “Une Cha rogne,” with which the painter was obsessed for many years. The work calls for solo baritone (the active and valuable Thomas Buckner), instrumental trio and electronic processing, with video projections not as snazzy as in Monsters but disturbing in their very vagueness.
Rothman teaches composition at Cal Arts; he has also served this area nobly as organizer of new-music concerts. I liked his new piece — which, by the way, is out on New World Records. Some of it seemed to hover as long, unwavering lines right at the edge of perception; then would come an arc of sound, a mel ody like a clear burst of color worthy of Cézanne himself. The phenomenal CalArts trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith wound small, fragile sounds around the music, like a gold thread seen from afar; clarine tist David Smeyers and cellist Ted Mook completed the en sem ble: a distin guish ed event, a proper close to a series deserving of high praise (and, alas, a larger audience turnout).
Alfred Brendel ended his Music Center concert with the last and most mysterious of Schubert’s piano sonatas, the B-flat (followed by that composer’s almost unbearably poignant G-flat Impromptu as encore); before, he had played sonatas by Haydn and Mozart. You may dispute his take on classical composers; I found his way with the Mozart C-major Sonata (K. 330) somewhat ungiving. Nobody but Brendel — at least among today’s pianists — knows how to reach into the depths of Schubert’s language: the sunset tones and heart-stopping emotion that come at the end of the first movement of that B-flat Sonata and then persist beyond definable limits in the sublime slow movement.
We will never know what drove Schubert to such prodigies of expression in his last year — which also saw the String Quintet, two other piano sonatas, the Mass in E flat and the deliriously blithe-spirited song “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.” Schubert’s death came less than two months after completing the B-flat Sonata. Was its music a cry for help? A farewell to a world whose beauty he had helped to fashion? Brendel’s great playing does not answer these questions; he does, however, make them worth asking.