Dedicated followers of the Philip Glass fashion will want to get this two-CD set from Orange Mountain – because it's music by Philip Glass. The opera comprises two acts of 14 and 10 scenes and first performed in September 2005 at the Theatre Erfurt in Germany. It is well recorded here and can be recommended. The libretto is by the British playwright and screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, also known for such successes as "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988) and "The Quiet American" (2002); Theatre Erfurt commissioned Waiting For The Barbarians.
Hampton adapted South African writer, John Coetzee's, novel from 1980, "Waiting For The Barbarians". Glass had originally approached Coetzee in 1991, and actually began his first 'treatment' at that time, when the composer was producing a series of operas with social and political themes… Satyagraha (also set in South Africa, dealing with Gandhi's years there), Akhnaten and Einstein on the Beach, the trilogy dealing with politics, religion and science.
Glass states his aim as 'to preserve Coetzee's bold allegorical approach while dramatizing the classic themes of confrontation, crisis and redemption so the audience itself is left weighing the meaning of good and evil in their own lives." Allegory is important; as are parallels and patterns. If there is a single theme, it is of oppressors and oppressed, and the extent to which those involved commit themselves to mitigate the suffering and stop it.
The story is of a 'right-thinking' civil servant used to "following orders', perhaps by default. He at first downplays the alleged threat of invasion by 'the barbarians' of the frontier town of which he is magistrate. Propaganda attempts – as does all propaganda – to make the enemy all bad and the 'homeland' all good. He quickly becomes aware of the brutality of his compatriots in treating the prisoners of war, whom the libretto describes as being from a land "not easily specifiable, but, on the distant fringes of the Empire, perhaps in Central Asia". So, although never spelt out explicitly by Glass or his fellow musicians, it would be naïve not to see criticism of the conduct of the United States and those it oppresses in its own empire: torture, Guantánamo, the demonization of Moslems and the "threat" from Iran.
But Glass has consciously – and largely successfully – concentrated the audience's outrage on the development of an individual: the (unnamed) Magistrate who is the central figure – in some ways. But the prisoners lay equal claim – in Waiting For The Barbarians. His conscience dictates that he should rescue a 'barbarian' girl, care for her and eventually return her to her people. It's personal amends, for sure. But it's courageous; he is, of course, ostracized for his sympathy. Were Glass to have set Waiting For The Barbarians more explicitly in contemporary America (the libretto is no more specific than "some time in the last millennium"), he'd no doubt be dubbed unpatriotic and failing to 'support the troops'. As it is, he is at first humiliated and then tortured himself for his actions.
Simple and enduring themes, then. Adapted with sensitivity and understatement by Glass. But not so successful as music as many of his earlier works. The center of gravity works… individuals' personal struggles to survive and to oppose state terrorism. There is little spectacle (although the action is punctuated by dreamscapes which are freer); but no bombast or heavy-handedness. The action has almost all to be moved on via dialog. And this is the opera's weakness. While there are the Glass trademarks throughout – ostinato arpeggios, striding brass, some beautiful melodies, much effective contrast in orchestral dynamics and textures, these rarely seem to complement the singing as one might hope or expect. The singing itself necessarily has to work with dialog that can be pretty pedestrian, mundane and striking by its very lack of rhetoric. Not base, nor yet trite (the situations and the way the relationships are developed see to that). But almost too down to earth for any kind of music to work with it. Least of all Glass' usually atmospheric textures which play the brittle against the elating. How do you set passages like these:
I'm speaking of a specific situation
in there I'll know if he's lying
And if he is
I simply push him till he breaks and tells the truth
Cook: You're working late
Magistrate: Hardly work
A letter to the Third Bureau
Complaining about the criminal stupidity
Of that idiot with the dark glasses
Don't say that
You terrify me
When I think about all that
I'm paralyzed with fear
Tell me what will happen to the children?
Not that it's a "bad" libretto, or an inappropriate one. Just not shot through with poetry, or with poetic tension and drama. This has made enhancing it with Glass' accepted gifts for melody, pace and contrast more of a challenge (and met less successfully) than in many of the composer's other vocal works. The sound world of Waiting For The Barbarians is close, in some ways, to that of Anima Mundi, also from the early 1990s. Rightly, smaller thematic ideas (than those, say, of Einstein, Satyagraha and Akhnaten) on a reduced architectural scale are developed; there is no sense of movement faltering. But at times that something new and striking has to be found to underline the searing, devastating words of the opera. And the easiest way to do this for Glass is to rely on his established textures, rhythms and phrasing.
There is little inclusion of fresh instrumental groups, of allusion to other works – inside and outside Glass' own corpus – and no truly arresting moments that do not almost immediately dissipate in the familiar and the deflated, almost. The orchestral playing is well up to standard and the singing competent but never outstanding. Richard Salter as the ageing Magistrate is adequate, but a little dreary in places, although the Barbarian girl Elvira Soukop has more dynamism.
So, Glass enthusiasts will be pleased because this is not pages and pages of slowly-evolving tones at this stage in Glass' career, but carefully mapped and crafted musical theater that makes most of its points well. Glass' detractors will suggest he has run out of creative energy and falls back too often on stock 'modules'. The appeal of Waiting For The Barbarians probably lies somewhere in the middle: Glass has chosen an important and topical subject to explore. He has used a variety of techniques well, gone a long way towards overcoming the limitations of a dialog-heavy libretto (one is never bored) by scaling back and focusing on the intimate and the accessible, the honesty between the Magistrate and the Girl is palpable. In this sense, Waiting For The Barbarians is closer to Sophocles than Brecht. The CDs are well recorded, the booklet slim but with the full libretto. Worth a look, though with some reservations.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey