Philip Glass – Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians – opera in two acts to a libretto by Christopher Lampton [UK premiere; concert performance]

The Magistrate – Richard Salter
Joll – Eugene Perry
Mandel – Michael Tews
Girl – Elvira Soukop
Cook – Kelly God
Star – Marisca Mulder
Old Man – Vazgen Ghazaryan
Soldiers / Guards – Peter Umstadt, Máté Sólyum-Nagy & Manuel MeyerSmall Girl – Grit Redlich

Chorus & Orchestra of Erfurt Theatre
Dennis Russell Davies

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 12 June, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Philip GlassOn the day of the resignation of David Davis as shadow Home Secretary, in protest against the Government’s proposal to extend the incarceration of suspects for up to 42 days without charge – successfully, if narrowly, passed in the House of Commons – Philip Glass’s two-act opera “Waiting for the Barbarians”, which was first staged in 2005 in the German city of Erfurt, came to the UK for the first time in this concert performance by those who mounted its first production.

Questions of human rights and their abuses by those in power have exercised the consciences and minds of creative writers for half a millennium and more, and, as recent world events have shown, they are with us still, and therefore constitute a suitable case for artistic treatment. But the problem surrounding such treatment is that any artist, no matter how well-meaning or eminent, has to take on their greater predecessors. In short, what can the South African writer J. M. Coetzee and the American composer Philip Glass tell us artistically about such abuses, which we know, in principle, already?

The ambivalence of human attitudes, as events – over which the individual has no control – conspire (literally) to change his mind, has become inbred; as with black-and-white footage of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War Two, there is surely no sentient adult in the Western World who is not aware of them, and of what led to such horrors. If, today, we can see human frailty (in terms of inhuman behaviour) continuing to wreak havoc, what is given to us, as (we assume) sensitive members of an operatic audience, through the terms of this particular work, the expectations of which were such as to bring a virtually sold-out audience to the Barbican?

Dennis Russell DaviesThe short answer is: not much. But the chief thing the audience was given was this outstandingly successful concert-staging of the piece, most effectively and convincingly done, although those responsible for this palpable success were not even named in the programme book, yet every member of the orchestra and the chorus was identified. This omission was a distinct pity, for we had to add little to the production in terms of our imaginative grasp of the story being played out before us.

One says ‘story’, rather than ‘drama’ for, amongst many weaknesses, one of the main disappointments in the work is the lack of any dramaturgy as such. What we were hearing boiled down to a succession of musical pictures, or tableaux, set in Glass’s customary manner, which in terms of artistic creation or commentary on such horrendous events as were meant to be portrayed, were nothing more than a kind of puerile, at times embarrassingly so, note-spinning, not one bar of which came within a million miles of the subject. Glass’s musical provenance is well-known – early watered-down Stravinsky, early Carl Orff, early Mike Oldfield, all labouring under the supposedly artistically-valid title of ‘minimalism’ – and it was a disappointment writ larger than usual for someone, such as myself, who is more often than not prepared to give this original figure the benefit of my artistic doubts, to hear such music having been put before the public that gives the distinct impression that by merely setting each event off with a not unattractive ostinato figuration, he was hoping that, perhaps by bar 20 or so, a suitable vocal idea would have entered his head. Sadly, we waited, as did the composer, in vain.

The other manifest weakness of this piece is the lack of any distinctive characterisation; this was mere word-setting, without any attempt whatsoever to create musically valid and believable characters. It became downright boring, and not a little insulting on Glass’s part with regard to his view of the inherent musicianship of his likely audience, to have every one of our expectations so quickly met – there was nothing at all in this score to cause us to think, let alone with any depth of concentration, about the events such a graffiti-like piece of music were meant either to portray or comment upon. For the character of the Magistrate (quite superbly sung by Richard Salter) was expressed in a kind of recitativo-arioso short-breathed style, at all times riding on the top of the underlying Grade II/III instrumental ‘backing’, that was equally applied to the other ‘characters’ in this pseudo-drama.

Christopher Hampton’s libretto, excellently projected in surtitles (a necessity, as much of the English singing was virtually unintelligible – Salter always excepted), is a good one, and would have stretched the powers of far greater composers than Glass, although one could not avoid the distinct impression of a kind of New York-based-media-friendly-hefty-slice-of-emotional-blackmail throughout the piece, arising from Coetzee’s novel, which suits those navel-gazers, obsessed with living in the first decade of the 21st-century, almost literally down to the ground.

Finally, the music as such, in so far as one’s attention was held, was downright boring. It must have seemed so to the Orchestra and Chorus, their music being of such simplicity that very little in the way of rehearsal was necessary to reveal such qualities as it may possess. The performance, however, was magnificent, and those who wish to investigate this artistic phenomenon for themselves are directed to a particularly well-recorded and excellently-presented recording of the complete opera, on the Orange Mountain label, by the same cast as gave this London concert premiere.

Quite why such an evident failure of a work such as this should have been considered for production in an opera house, and thereafter brought to London, says much about contemporary ‘art’ today, but I suppose we have to be nice to dissident Americans and indulge their allegorical if, in this instance, profoundly weak protests against the actions of the “madman” (Gore Vidal’s description) that their fellow-countrymen have elected as their President.

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