Lincoln Center Festival, 1999

The Days Before: Death, Destruction, and Detroit III. Score by Ryuichi Sakamoto; Robert Wilson, Director and Designer. Text from The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, and Tone Poems by Christopher Knowles. With Fiona Shaw, Jeremy Geidt, Tony Randall, Isabella Rosellini, Dadon Dawadolma, and Semiha Berksoy. Lincoln Center Festival at New York State Theater, July 9, 1999, World Premiere.

At his best, Robert Wilson is probably the most talented designer/director in the world. His mesmerizing visual images have an intensity and energy of their own… they excite the imagination and challenge the intellect, yet there is a wit and whimsy about them. He has generally been fortunate in his collaborations, working with the most talented composers, living and dead (Philip Glass and Richard Wagner come to mind), on their most powerful projects. Lately, however, he has made several attempts to have his own shows, with the composers and librettists relegated to the role of hired hands. The results, while not disastrous, don't rise to the level of great music theater, and they pale compared to his finest productions. The latest of these, which had its premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival, was The Days Before: Death, Destruction, and Detroit III

The libretto for this odd work was drawn from two sources, Umberto Eco's novel, The Island of the Day Before, and Christopher Knowles' Tone Poems. While this text borders on the pretentious, there are moments of great poetry, especially in the ruminations on the hereafter. The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is a sort of techno-pop, using computers and synthesizers, with prerecorded bits and sampling, natural sounds, a gamut of styles, and lots of generic new-wave sounds. But from time to time, things liven up: a Tibetan chant is sung by Ms. Dadon Dawadolma, famous Tibetan chanter; and Ms. Semiha Berksoy, age 90, sings a very slow, very low transposition of the Liebestod from Tristan while sliding across the stage reclining on a sofa in a diva-esque outfit (perhaps you had to be there, but I thought this piece actually worked, in terms of its dramatic power and its relevance as a meditation on the meaning of death, but the audience seemed to think of it as a comedy act).

But the star of this show was indisputably Robert Wilson, whose visual imagery was what this incredibly hip audience came to see. He did not disappoint. Out came stylish tableaux, state-of-the-art computerized projections, fabulously chic costumes, and the meticulous Wilson touch with lighting and choreography. There is enough new material here to avoid accusations of stereotyping, but the style is uniquely Wilson's own. It was fun to watch, and fun to try to figure out. The latter was mostly in vain; this work is too abstract and the text too obtuse to deal with on a rational level. Yet there were moments of great beauty. Part of the fascination of all this is observing the audience, whose reverence for Wilson has made him a sort of high priest of design. There is nothing quite like this particular phenomenon in the rest of the opera world, and this is the kind of young and dedicated fan group that the classical music desperately needs. If only Wilson would return to giving them something more substantial in the musical element of his work, he could really advance the cause of serious music.

James L. Paulk