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Review of Act One

Skills ensemble
Director PhelimMcDermott

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Stratford
The Coliseum, London, February 25, 2010

Incomprehensible and endlessly repetitious chanting lures listeners into a sea of bland musical marshmallows. Occasional captions at the back of the stage clad the proceedings in a platitudinous religiosity.

In Act 1 Leo Tolstoy, as an inspirational character, is made to climb up the back wall to preside in silence, writing on high [pictured L].

Some splendid puppetry impressed, but failed to ignite sufficient enthusiasm against the musical paucity [see score sample below].

Irritation beyond endurance made us flee after the near hour-long first of three Acts, scheduled to take some 3½ hrs overall.

Alexa Woolf


A divisive show and a huge commercial success - no doubt it will be a stalwart at ENO for many years to come (Classical Source).

To expand on our feelings of revulsion at how Glass exploits commercially the current appetite for simplicity and "spirituality", and help to justify our dereliction of duty by not sticking it out to the end, here are a few press quotes from writers who share our scepticism:

Glass's restrained and repetitive style, turns protest into a dreamlike meditation on action that is all act without action- - a moment of excitement and passion - - occurred during the second act, when a piece of scenery got caught, and was freed by swift (and loud) kicks from a stagehand. Even in a minimalist world, a little action and excitement will come to those who wait.

Which was ***ier, one wonders: the music or the staging? The music, you see, gets a little better in Act Two - -
Yet, the staging never gets past dreadful - -
[The Arts Desk]

Philip Glass’s music is like stroking a cat: intensely soothing, unless you happen to be allergic. The purring repetitions, the warm, silken surface, the incantatory gestures, the voluptuous contentment in holding one pose for an impossibly long time - -

- - It looks nice and there is something to stimulate under Glass's stasis. However, that's all it is - - nice images that anyone who has seen any work by IMPROBABLE will have seen before. I came out of the show none the wiser about anything. - - Making the already obvious visible was a little A-level, as was the relation of the staging to the music - 'this music is repetitive and cyclical, so we do the same thing slowly and in circles again and again and again like Robert Wilson did in the 1960's' - - lots of people really loved it, equally some people walked out, but that's probably still due to Glass's Music rather than the staging - -

- - The great weakness is the score. At its most memorable in the first act - although even there Glass’s endless repetitions prove wearisome - but later on, simply tedious.

- - a hieratic affair in abstract nouns, subjunctives and imperatives - - slow hypnotic minimalism with only a few recurring chords in every scene - - jejune musical repetition - - some may find meat in the opera - - for me it was poison [WT, Metro]

If a phrase is worth singing once, Glass apparently reasons, it must be worth singing 50 times in a row. Precious? Profound? Psychedelic? Did I like it? Minimally... [Financial Times, 2008]

Reader's comments: 1. Excellent MP review - that was all that needed saying. About time people put their true feelings about Glass in writing. We've been muttering about it for too long. [BB]
2. - - went to the dress rehearsal and did the same – walked out after Act 1 – my ears were screaming for a rest! [SF]

Watch on YouTube the assembly of a ladder tower (to some of the more animated music) to help you decide whether to go to the Coliseum. [Editor]

P.S. 1 3 2010 Received from ENO, an interactive sections of the score to click onto and follow: e.g.




Images - photo credits: Alastair Muir / ENO