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Four acts, pushing five hours’ running time, no interval but with the audience encouraged to “enter and exit at liberty”- small wonder perhaps that Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s 1976 opera hasn’t been performed for twenty years.

Ground-breaking in its time, its non-narrative form still challenges with its use of powerful recurrent images and often impenetrable poetic reflection to pinpoint moments in the life of the renowned theoretical physicist, seen here as a young boy throwing paper aeroplanes and a wild-haired solo violinist seated on a yellow chair.

Now reconstructed by its three original co-collaborators, it’s certainly not an easy ride. The slowly evolving tableaux of the main scenes are framed and punctuated by shorter but equally obscure and reiterative “knee plays” and at times the sheer repetition of this UK premiere seems interminable.

But there are also moments of such pure unearthly beauty (when the human voice becomes a musical instrument of immense subtlety, or the musicians of the Philip Glass Ensemble create phrases of almost unbearably plangency)  that one is seduced all over again by his minimalist score.

And then there’s Lucinda Childs’ gloriously swooping choreography – showcased  in two extended sections – in which her seemingly tireless dancers cross and recross the stage as light as swirling sycamore seeds with their arms outstretched or, hands by their sides, skip buoyantly across our field of vision in mesmerising patterns one hopes will never end.

Barbican , Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS
Tube: Barbican
Until May 13
£35 - £125
barbican.org.uk


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