Cultural Omnibus. Two American iconoclasts are waging `CIVIL war' in Amersterdam

ALL over Amsterdam, black posters with white lettering are heralding the Netherlands Opera Company's revival of the ``Roman Section'' of ``the CIVIL warS,'' an opera by American composer Philip Glass and American director/writer Robert Wilson. Both Wilson and Glass gained a public in Europe before achieving their comparatively recent recognition on home ground. The Dutch revival of the concluding ``act'' of the five-part ``CIVIL warS'' extravaganza continues this European support and interest.

The premier of this 12-hour epic occurred piecemeal in 1983-1984, when each of the opera's five sections was staged in a different city -- from Tokyo to Rome. A plan to present the whole work in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games was cancelled because of inadequate funding. The final section now on stage in Amsterdam was first produced in Rome two years ago last month.

This last section resembles a traditional opera more than the other parts do. This medium was particularly well suited to the 19th century Roman Opera House where it was first (and apparently not altogether successfully) staged. But it seems that Wilson also considered this to be the best form for a finale.

The section is an ambitious melange of many different elements. When seen as a separate piece, it suggests that Wilson accepts some operatic and theatrical conventions. I suspect that a better acquaintance with his and Glass's work together or apart might quickly dispel this suggestion. Their audience does not look like a conventional opera audience and their work is not known for its lack of originality.

Clearly, this not a usual opera. But Glass -- whose Eastern-influenced music has deceptively simple rhythms and repetitions and is sometimes found in the pop sections of record shops -- is a classically trained composer writing here for classically trained operatic soloists, chorus, and orchestra. And Wilson -- whose admirers tell newcomers not to expect straight-forward ``story-telling'' from his work -- nevertheless shows himself in this piece to be much in sympathy with another characteristic of classical opera: its unreal time-scale and slow pace.

In fact, Wilson's theatre of deliberate, slowly changing images finds in opera a perfect context. There is a mutual enhancement between his processional, dignified elaboration of imagery, and opera's stylization of human emotion and vocal expression. He seems to be determined to reestablish a kind of dignified stylization, even at times a ritualism, that is at odds with his modernity. He apparently wants to restore opera's theatrical power of myth and fairy tale. But he wants to do it in terms of his unique vision -- like a collage-maker or a painter of overlapping images, sounds, and movements, rather than as a narrator.

Still, this part of ``the CIVIL warS'' does not suggest that Wilson is a narrative dramatist in any sense. Indeed, his use of repetitive spoken words -- either filled with significance (though delivered without emotion) or nonsensical -- deliberately undermines the method of conventional drama, in which actions unfold from the author's logically reasoned convictions or from a conflict of circumstances or characters.

Instead, Wilson's ``characters'' are figures, almost puppets. They often have no more independence than the animals or large-scale props (in this case items such as a tree-trunk and a space-ship) that he deploys with remarkable effect. His people tend towards the symbolic, but what they symbolize remains enigmatic.

Abraham and Mrs. Lincoln, Hercules, Robert E. Lee, Garibaldi and the Hopi Indians, the Earth Mother and the Snowy Owl all figure in this opera, and are apparent symbols no less than the steady procession of ``trees of all the world'' that impressively crosses the stage in the last scene until the world once again returns to a state of primeval tropical jungle. In the end, one is left with the feeling that the trees are more alive -- and certainly more individual -- than the people.

Glass's score seems to ask to be thought of as background music. It acts as harmonious accompaniment to the visual impact of Wilson's theater. And there are times of considerable impact when imagery, instrumental music, speech, song, and even dance interweave or overlap so that none is predominant. On such occasions this opera is a rich tapestry.

Both music and imagery propose an art form in which the audience's imagination is given free play. And yet, paradoxically, this work is the outcome of exacting stage-direction and control.

Here is an opera with no story, and yet it continually develops. It displays little or no interest in subjective human feeling, and yet (partly because of the fine singing of Ruby Hinds and John Gilmore) it can be unexpectedly stirring. Most puzzlingly, it emphasizes the peaceful, benign, and innocuous, even suggesting some form of hope-for-the-future in its picture of a world that forgets about past anguish and ``warS,'' civil or otherwise.

And yet this same visionary world (which you take finally to be Wilson's) seems to achieve its promise -- a return to a jungle-state in which man submits to nature -- only at the expense of humanity. Heroes (like Lincoln, who starts out as a 20-foot marionette and shrinks to normal size at the end of the piece) are undoubtedly none the worse for being smaller. But in this strange, though frequently beautiful, opera of visions, they remain mysteriously de-personalized symbols -- whatever their height above sea-level.

This production is at the Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam, April 8, 10, 15, 18, 21, 23 at 8.00 p.m.; April 13, 27 at 2.00 p.m.

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