April 24th, 2014 | Live reviews

I love the weird ones. And while Philip Glass’ rise to fame has come from being the least weird/noisy/uncomfortable of all the 20th century composers to trail in the wake of John Cage (the house Thursday night was packed, far more crowded than when Terry Riley himself played organ in this very concert hall), last week’s production of the CIVIL warS at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was enthusiastically jarring, an interesting and sometimes awkward juxtaposition of Glass’ subtle stylistic rebellions draped over the craziest lyrics ever committed to opera.

Though billed as a Philip Glass night, really most of the credit should go to the writer, Robert Wilson. It was his libretto that Thursday’s audience will come away thinking about, whether they found it charming (as I mostly did) or uncomfortably disorganized (as, at times, I also did). True, the music was as enjoyable as anything else Glass composed during his later “representational” phase. And some of the singers Thursday were the best I’ve ever heard live—there’s definitely not just one auteur here, when you consider how many people gave their all to make this set-less symphony come to life. There’s director Tanya Kane-Parry, who directed Thursday’s stripped-down approach, and let’s not forget the textual assists from Maita di Niscemi, who helped round out the libretto for Wilson back in ‘84. But there’s only so much room here for collaboration. Playwright (“operawright?”) Robert Wilson’s strange work virtually dictates a treatment like what was presented Thursday. Even from miles and decades away, he is clearly the mastermind behind what we saw and heard and read and experienced.

You must understand that this work (the full name is “the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down”) was intended from the start to be a pastiche job, a cut-out that fate then sliced up even more than Wilson intended. It all goes back to 1984, and Los Angeles, and the Summer Olympics. Wilson (you might know him as being the dude who made The Black Rider with Tom Waits) had been commissioned to do something “American” to open the official Olympic ceremony, something that would also be pleasing to international audiences. But in a typically American fashion, Wilson’s plans grew waaaaay over the top, until he’d planned a staged opera that would take an entire day to perform, one far too big ever to get funded or even finished.

Thursday’s performance was just one taste of the mad masterpiece that could have been. This was merely the “Rome” suite of that unfinished work, Glass’s section, originally intended to be the last out of six intended operas that would fuse together like Voltron for that ill-fated ‘84 Olympic performance. Several other oddball musical talents, including David Byrne, had been tapped to compose for the other five, but in the end, only Glass really completed his full section of the libretto as Wilson had intended.

And what Wilson intended certainly doesn’t have a traditional operatic plot, with beginning, middle, and end. There are characters from the American Civil War, sure, like Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln (baritone Craig Verm, tonight’s Lincoln, was center stage most of the night with a big, almost Cat in the Hat-sized stovepipe hat on his noggin’). But Wilson also wrote in a fictitious, young, sexy version of Mary Lincoln, as well as the Italian patriot Garibaldi, and even Hercules! And Hercules’ mom! On Thursday, each walked onto the stage unexpectedly, pitching in on the action with more recitation than singing, so much so that they all needed to hold the script as they read.

Rather than write lyrics out of whole cloth, Wilson put samples and snippets of existing texts in their mouths, like actual Civil War letters, sometimes read by a guy who was supposed to be Robert E. Lee but looked like a Dashiell Hammett style Mark Twain (actually baritone and radio celeb John Schneider), sometimes looped into endless repeated sentences about horses and handsome riders, and sometimes read or sung by various gorgeous blonde sopranos. Plus there were nods to Native American genesis stories, and chirping bird noises, and Roman mythology, and prayer-like refrains from a choir who entered the auditorium halfway through, and bits of Seneca, translated from the original Latin not into English but into Italian, though some parts of the play seemed to be in no actual language at all (seriously, I wrote it down—does “nosage manic tru foi daburre du tran” mean anything to you?).

Sounds cluttered? I smiled throughout: the overall effect sounded not so much like a hodge-podge as like a fragmented piece from antiquity itself. Would the Mary Lou Retton fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1984 have gotten this? Some would say 1984 itself is antiquity to the modern ear. But I doubt it seemed so far away to Thursday night’s silver-haired audience, where, even I in my mid-30s, felt like a spritely young thang, well under the median age in attendance. Where were these guys when I saw Terry Riley here, or Ligeti’s Aventures?

I’ve read articles about how the median age of classical music artists keeps going up without young people to replenish it, and that worries me. I think it’s because young people tend to love the bombastic, and don’t expect it to come from strings and woodwinds—and if they were in the audience tonight, you wouldn’t be able to convince them—even when Glass’s music required the orchestra to jump around in their time signatures, he snuck it in under our noses, a typically masterful handling that blended unobtrusively when perhaps a big jagged 5/7 gash might have woken us up more.

Nay, the wake-up calls were definitely from the singers themselves, during those moments when they were actually singing and not reciting the words of dead soldiers from a clipboard. The liveliest part of the performance was the Garibaldi part: tenor Andrew Staples deserves a lot of credit for running back and forth through the aisles of Disney Hall and belting out words of patriotism at the top of his voice, so loud they didn’t dare mic him as he cried out to us from over by the organ “Rogues! Conmen! Talkers! Traitors! I await the call!!!” It made me want to stand up and pump my fist! And the fact that I felt I couldn’t express my joy is one of the many things wrong with modern classical performances.

Despite the fantastic natural acoustics of the building, there were a few pretty embarrassing mistakes on the A.V. club side of things, if we’re being honest. LA PHIL, if you must mic an operatic performance, can you at least test that the microphones and cords aren’t static-y, or have a backup, or just… just don’t fuck it up? We’re paying dozens of dollars here—which is clearly more than you paid your temps to type out the translations onto the big opera scoreboard, where “lose” was spelled “loose” throughout the evening, and other snippets of text and capitalization and punctuation seemed strangely wrong, even for a piece where everything’s up for grabs. I know this was supposed to be a “cantata-like concert performance lacking the hallucinatory visuals that originally accompanied the full staged version,” as the program so honestly described it, but doesn’t that mean it’s even more important that the few remaining moving parts stay in sync?

On the other hand, lighting designer Trevor Stirlin Burk thrived under the limitations of the minimal staging budget.  Near the end, there was a moment when Lincoln and the hot sexy weird version of Mary Todd came out and sang/spoke together on a bit of a platform stage center, in front of the orchestra. They stood apart from each other, distant, awkward, lacking the physicality and trust needed to make their marriage work, as if Mary Todd already blamed Lincoln for the dissolution of the nation and his own death. Yet in big bright spotlights flanking the walls on either side, their stilted walk around each other in literal space appeared as shadows literally dancing with each other, somehow being graceful, like a waltz, but only in the realm of shadowy hope.

How strange that a piece meant to open the Olympics could be so invested in shadows, and death, and war. Even it’s very final moments, which contained words from Hercules to his mother, Alcmene, about conquering hell itself, seemed boastful and empty, full of sorrow; and indeed, the lights went down suddenly thereafter, as if the Disney Hall was abandoning us just as Hercules, by ascending to heaven, would soon abandon his mother and all his loved ones. There were so many questions left unanswered.

The LA Philharmonic’s stripped-down interpretation of Glass’ faithful treatment of Wilson’s words felt a little bit smart, a little bit chaotic, a little but underdone—in short, it was perhaps more faithful to Wilson’s raw gem than a huge-budget spectacle would have been. I didn’t love everything I consumed that night. But I’m hungry for more.

-D. M. Collins