'White Raven' takes flight

Philip Glass's opera melds inventive drama and flights of sheer fancy

White Raven" is a five-act opera with action stretching from Portugal and Brazil to the moon and an undersea crystal city.

As tantalizing as that sounds, the real excitement is that the production has been composed by Philip Glass and directed by Robert Wilson, two of the most renowned - and controversial - American artists of the past several decades. Although they've rarely worked together, they have sometimes been thought of as a natural-born team ever since their earlier five-act opera, "Einstein on the Beach," became an international hit a quarter-century ago. They also collaborated on "the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down," an epic musical and theatrical event that has been performed only in isolated sections.

"White Raven" encapsulates the qualities of both Glass and Wilson that admirers adore and adversaries scorn. The music is deliberately repetitive, rolling through gradually shifting pitches and rhythms with pulsing precision. Meanwhile, the stage fills with tableaux and dances that occasionally throb with activity but generally unfold with slow-motion stillness.

In an era when art and entertainment thrive on thrill-a-minute commotion, Glass and Wilson readjust our sense of time to a contemplative pace, inviting us to savor each moment before moving gently to the next. Those who choose to accept this radically unusual approach find that "White Raven" has rich rewards to offer, even if it tends to revisit territory these artists have trod before. Commissioned by Portuguese authorities for a 1998 commemoration of 15th-century explorers, it starts with the seafaring feats of Vasco da Gama. But in keeping with the expansive view of Wilson and Glass, it immediately extends its vision to an overall celebration of "beginnings, first things, first times - the apotheosis of the starting point and how it bears ghosts from the past and hopes for the future," in the words of Luisa Costa Gomes, who wrote the opera's libretto.

This libretto is a freewheeling collage of texts, from historical reports and newspaper headlines to rules of etiquette and flights of sheer fantasy.

It's an excellent verbal launching pad for Wilson, who treats the stage less as a platform for dramatic storytelling than as a canvas for live-action painting that incorporates scenery, lighting, costumes, and performances as more-or-less equal elements.

His visual ideas for "White Raven" are wildly inventive, with an eclectic cast of characters. Vasco da Gama is among them, but more prominent is a writer who performs the show's most invigorating dances and speaks its most evocative words. Among the others are two ravens, three scientists, four travelers, a dragon, a native king and queen, a man with an elephant foot, Judy Garland and a Tin Man, and a Miss Universe who presides over her kingdom from a lunar perch. Posed and lighted with the dreamlike unpredictability that is Wilson's trademark, they represent a visionary cross section of humanity's past, present, future, and what might have been.

Although it had only four performances last weekend in an engagement at Lincoln Center that marked its American premiere, "White Raven" offers hope that the partnership of Wilson and Glass may become a more frequent affair.

It will also be pleasant if they continue working with like-minded artists who reappear in their productions from time to time. These include singer Douglas Perry, who originated the part of Mohandas Gandhi in Glass's superb opera "Satyagraha" and filled three "White Raven" roles, and the brilliant dancer Lucinda Childs, an "Einstein" veteran who played the Writer here.

Wilson clearly enjoyed giving her bits of "Einstein"-type material, like poetic monologues and a rhythmic forward-backward dance.

Music-theater fans who missed "White Raven" will have to wait for possible revivals of the production, which may well occur, since "Einstein" tends to pop up every decade or so.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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