OPERA / Cast adrift on a sea of conceptual chaos: David Patrick Stearns on the world premiere of Philip Glass's Columbus quincentenary offering, The Voyage

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The Independent Culture
While some of Philip Glass's recent works have been a case of less-than- first-rate music buoyed up by a clever libretto and eye-catching production, just the opposite situation unfolded at the New York Metropolitan Opera at Monday's premiere of The Voyage. It's one of Glass's most substantial, richly textured scores with an even greater lushness and broader orchestral palette than his recent Low symphony. Sadly, producer David Pountney and playwright David Henry Hwang have let him down on a scale that only a dollars 2 million production could buy.

The Voyage is a sprawling triptych comprising three meditations on the subject of exploration and discovery. The first shows aliens from a distant planet landing on the Earth during the Ice Age. The second shows Columbus in his darkest hour, just prior to landing in America. The third takes place in the future when explorers from Earth set off for the planet of the aliens of Act 1.

Hwang's text is by turns discursive and coy or clinical and unpoetic. His scenes lack shape: they don't really end, but simply stop. There are hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey - but without the visionary subtext. At least the text is short - just 24 pages. The same can't be said of the contributions by Pountney and designer Robert Israel, whose work nearly bursts with thoughts but lacks an overall concept.

Each act seems to be the work of a different production team. The first has the Ice Age primitives - dressed in flashy evening gowns with quasi-pagan chicken-heads - mistaking one of the aliens for a goddess in a scene that crosses The Rite of Spring with West Side Story. The second act has more of a Robert Wilson- ish feel, with various objects floating in and out, including Queen Isabella (valiantly played by Tatiana Troyanos) appearing out of the waves along with a number of less savoury, less relevant creatures. The third act is pure Peter Sellars, with the explorers being egged on by a campy legion of cheerleaders.

But from the opening bars - as they unfurled under the baton of Bruce Ferden - Glass's score promised something rich and concentrated, with rhythms and microtones suggesting the North African influences that were present in Spain until 1492. No previous Glass score has shown such a sophisticated sense of counterpoint and eloquent use of chromaticism. Though his vocal lines are often uninteresting, Glass shows a keener sense of precision in finding the right emblematic melody to develop thoughout a given scene.

The Voyage finds Glass at a juncture: the music has lost its hypnotic quality along with its simplicity. While it has acquired a distinctive sensuality, it has yet to create characters that serve more than a symbolic function. This is the next great frontier that Glass must explore.