Forget minimalist. It’s a term Philip Glass never liked as a term for his musical style, and the rich complexity of “The Lost,” his newest opera, proves those who insist on using it just plain wrong.
Written for the new Linz opera house, where it world-premiered on Friday, “The Lost “Spuren der Verirrten” in the original German is a strangely reassuring confirmation that though mankind has gone astray we are all in the same boat; that while all we do has no sense, that rule applies to all of us.
Life; death; fame; fortune; joy; tears. All human striving in vain. It’s a story that has been told many times, in word, music, song and dance. “The Lost” combines all those threads and then some with magnificent result in what in some ways combines Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot,” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”
Don’t look for named characters. That would be too personal. Instead we have singer “A” interacting with “B” and so on. The fact that “A” and “B” are lost is clear from the very start, even as they mark the way they came.
Two hours later, pause included, more than a hundred people crowd the cavernously deep stage and spill into the pit where they make a show of playing imaginary instruments. The orchestra has moved onto stage. They wear funny hats and conductor Dennis Russell Davies sports a paper crown.
The music soars to a crescendo. Drums pound. All of humanity is lost, and all around is chaos. “Where are we?” they sing on the sinister, red-lit stage, knowing there will be no answer.
But a lot happens before that sonorous end, as one tableau follows the other depicting vignettes of the banality of being.
An old couple sit, both soaking their feet. “Whatever happens I will never desert you,” sings one.
“We’ve come through tougher times than these,” intones the other;
“Even when you sweated in fear, it smelled good” exchanges that make clear in their triteness that it is the audience all of us who are on stage.
Another couple are fighting, “Die, die,” screams one before changing tack in mid—breath to suddenly sing “Let’s get along again, neighbour. Peace.”
Bizarre shapes populate the action. An armless man moves wormlike across the stage as his partner berates him for failing life’s tests. They both die.
Another character “The Third” takes on the role of the Greek chorus loudly proclaiming the futility of it all, while “The Spectator” wonders where all the exertion is leading.
Adding to the on-stage edginess is nervous ballet choreography.
The dancers jerk and move rapidly but without a sense of the purpose that a life lived well should have. The motions are mechanical. Life is mechanical.
A visual feast, compliments of director David Pountney, choreographer Amir Hosseinpour, and Anne Marie Legenstein, who created the bewildering array of delightfully bizarre costumes. Fabrice Kebour’s lighting cold and dreary blues, alternating with jarring brightness were also effective.
But none of it would work without Glass’s music.
Menacingly buzzing strings, roaring brass instruments and a crashing synthesizer alternate with poignantly melodic lines. Glass is boldly symphonic in one moment, softly insistent the next, weaving a harmonic tapestry that becomes part of the visual fabric on stage.
One of the world’s greatest living composers, Glass shows in “The Lost” that he truly is a man for all musical seasons and his wonderful sounds are brought alive by Davis, the conductor, who leads Bruckner Orchestra with the authority and vigor that this music demands.
The soloists from “A” to “K” also did well, in roles that were less challenging vocally and more dramatically.
Ahead of the performance, Austrian dramatist Peter Handke, on whose play the opera is based, praised Glass’s work as “faithful” to his own while Glass described his effort as an attempt at “Gesamtkunst” the term coined by Richard Wagner meaning “Total Art.”
“I call it earth, air, fire and water,” he said in comments to The Associated Press of the totality of art forms that went into “The Lost.” “Movement, text, image and music those are the elements we worked with.”
While not speaking German, Glass said working to Rainer Mennicken’s libretto in that language was no problem because “I knew the grammar and I just plugged in the words. Beyond that, he also is drawn to Austria “because the musicians are so good.”
“I used to think that the American orchestras would be my true home,” he said. “But I found out that there is another element, another layer of music that you get in a Central European orchestraa depth of sound” that most American ensembles do not have. - AP