Opera Fits Into Glass's Canon
NEW YORK — ENTERING the Metropolitan Opera House to see Philip Glass's newest work, "The Voyage," brought memories of walking through the same door to watch "Einstein on the Beach" in 1976, when that five-hour opus - created in tandem with Robert Wilson, the visionary stage director - put Mr. Glass's name on the musical map.
If one hadn't followed his career during the 16 intervening years, one might be amazed at the changes in style. "Einstein" is scored for small ensemble and violin soloist; its "libretto" is do-re-mi syllables and numbers; its instrumental and vocal lines form repetitive structures with little concern for melody. By contrast, "The Voyage" employs a full orchestra, has lyrics in standard English, and features lush melodic lines with unpredictable agendas.
Glass's development has followed a consistent pattern, however, and "The Voyage" marks a logical continuation of the gradually expanding priorities that have guided him.
Thematically, the new work deals with an important historical personality just as his earlier "portrait operas" did. Also in keeping with those operas - which focused on Einstein the scientist, Gandhi the pacifist, and Akhnaton the religious innovator - the libretto of "The Voyage" depicts a famous protagonist in terms that emphasize the legacy of myth as well as the realities of history.
In this context, the decision by Glass and librettist David Henry Hwang to treat Christopher Columbus not through biographical or historical conventions, but rather through the fabulations of legend and fantasy, seems intellectually and aesthetically sound - even as it helps the opera's creators avoid controversies that might have arisen if they had depicted Columbus in ordinary terms as either a cultural hero or an imperialistic villain.
Musically, the textures and harmonies of "The Voyage" often recall "Satyagraha" and its companion "Glassworks" suite; the presence of percussion dates back to the "Akhnaton" funeral scene; and the use of pungent chromaticism attests to the steadily growing versatility of Glass's melodic and harmonic palette.
The opera's sense of spectacle, meanwhile, frequently evokes the seminal "Einstein," especially when a particular vision (such as a locomotive chugging past a painting suspended in mid-air) seems to borrow directly from Mr. Wilson's visual ideas. Like the major Glass operas before it, "The Voyage" is resoundingly generous to eyes and ears alike, combining the energy and stability of minimalist-type repetition with dances, gestures, and tableaux - ranging from images of Columbus at sea to interplanetary t ravel and a slapstick dance of futuristic world leaders - juxtaposed in high postmodernist style.
IF the sights and sounds of "The Voyage" don't reach the dizzying heights of Glass masterpieces like "Einstein" and "Satyagraha," the reason could be that both minimalism and the theater-of-images style have now established themselves as recognizable and reliable genres. They offer extraordinary resources for inventive artists but no longer guarantee the unprecedented, out-of-nowhere freshness that welled up from them just a few years ago. Bold and beautiful as it is, "The Voyage" can't take us by surpri se as works by Glass and his most compatible collaborators once did. It's a splendid show, but never a full-fledged revelation.
The opening-night performance of "The Voyage" was solidly conducted by Bruce Ferden, who did well by the opera's sturdy rhythmic and harmonic architecture. The singing was generally strong, and many participants in the production made impressive Met debuts.