Glass: Waiting for the Barbarians
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|1. ACT I - Prelude|
|2. In fact, we never had a prison|
|3. Dreamscape No 1|
|4. You sent for me|
|5. You're working late|
|6. Normally speaking, we would never approve of torture...|
|7. Take off your cap|
|8. Dreamscape No 2|
|9. Do you like living in the town?|
|10. To demonstrate our strength|
See all 15 tracks on this disc
|1. ACT II - Here, in the dark|
|2. Dreamscape No 4|
|3. What is going on?"|
|4. Prologue to Scene Four|
|5. Perhaps you would be so kind|
|6. Enemy, Barbarian Lover!|
|7. So we're still feeding you well?|
|8. Dreamscape No 5|
|9. Tell me, what has happened|
|10. You don't have to go|
See all 11 tracks on this disc
Philip Glass's 2005 opera, Waiting for the Barbarians is based on the 1980 novel by Nobel Prize winning South African author J.M. Coetzee, with a libretto by Academy Award winner Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement). Waiting for the Barbarians is a harrowing allegory of the war between oppressors and the oppressed. The protagonist is a loyal civil servant who conscientiously runs the affairs of a tiny frontier garrison town, ignoring the threat of impending war with the "barbarians", a neighboring tribe of nomads. But with the arrival of a special unit of the Civil Guard spreading the rumor that the barbarians are preparing to attack, he becomes witness to the cruel and illegal treatment of prisoners of war. Torture is used to obtain confessions from the barbarian prisoners, thus "proving" the necessity of the planned campaign against the tribe. Jolted into sympathy for the victims, the old man decides to take a stand. He attempts to maintain a final shred of decency and dignity by bringing home a barbarian girl, crippled by torture and nearly blind, and subsequently returning her to her people - an act of individual amends. This dangerous, exhausting expedition brands him forever as a traitor, after which he himself becomes a victim of public humiliation and torture. This live recording from a performance in Amsterdam in 2006 is performed by the company from the Erfurt Theater, Erfurt Germany, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with Richard Salter as the Magistrate, and Eugene Perry as Colonel Joll. This is a two-disc double-digipack containing the complete libretto.
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The musical style of Waiting for the Barbarians is far removed from that of Philip Glass's famous early trio of operas, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten, since it relies on a continuously moving dramatic narrative rather than set pieces. The orchestration is ravishingly melodic with amazingly varied orchestral colours, against which the vocal line provides a counterpoint. In evidence here is Glass's ability to paint pictures with music, a skill honed on the text-less films of Godfrey Reggio, as when it describes an imperial garden or a buck deer drinking at a pond.
This combination of melody and colour also paints vivid pictures of the content of the action that is never more powerful than when it brings out the unstated subtext. For example, the Magistrate's act of unwrapping the bandages on the Barbarian girl's feet to examine the damage is accompanied by rapturous music of almost unbearable beauty. In his next scene with the Barbarian Girl, the Magistrate chats with her simply about her work and living conditions at the same time that he bathes her, and again music of swirling intensity brings out the emotional connection that the bath implies.
Christopher Hampton's libretto brilliantly condenses the novel into a series of scenes, including the novel's dreamscapes as orchestral interludes that allow a meditative pause between the dramatic events. The characters are also carefully drawn by differences in language. Colonel Joll, the expedition leader and "interrogator" is ultra-refined (his music is slithery-slick) while his foil and henchman, Officer Mandel, is brash and crude. Likewise the Magistrate is overly introspective and intellectual while his foil, the Barbarian Girl is matter-of-fact.
Hampton has also made a few changes in the plot and characters to bring out the kind of closure that is useful in the dramatic arc required of an operatic performance. He has joined the character of the cook and her daughter into a single person. The opera's cook appears to be secretly attached to the Magistrate and stands by while he repeatedly has sex with Star, the woman he can't love, and develops a love relationship with the Barbarian Girl, the woman with whom he is reluctant to have sex. But as in Goldilocks and the three bowls of porridge, he ultimately realizes that the cook is "just right."
The opera ends on note of hope on multiple levels. The Magistrate has expiated his guilt over complicity in the torture and abuse of the Barbarian prisoners at the same time that he has begun to figure out what it means to be human. On a larger scale, as the vile agents of the empire are defeated by their own arrogant stupidity, the community has learned something about justice and how irrational fears of an "Other" are used to manipulate people into betraying their most basic values. The latter, of course, is a lesson North Americans desperately need to learn. But it is important to remember that this operatic drama works on multiple levels, all explored brilliantly through text and music, and thus cannot be simply reduced to a political statement. The action speaks for itself, so that the text and music bring out the humanity of the characters and the universality of their situation and the choices they make.
There is thus a great deal to both ponder and enjoy in this opera. Even more than Satyagraha, Waiting for the Barbarians demonstrates how opera can be not only relevant in the 21st century but also a force for social change. Waiting for the Barbarians is opera "grown up"!
The bleakness and frequent claustrophobia of the piece suit the subject well (unlike the Voyage), and while not a work of beauty, WFTB is often haunting and provoking, but like much of Glass's recent catalog it sometimes makes you feel the composer himself does not know where he is headed. The problem with his minimalist roots is that they leave Mr Glass dangerously vulnerable to self-parody and repetition. Add to that a very substantial body of work (far exceeding the amount of music composers like Bartok or Stravinsky wrote in their lives), and inspirational exhaustion is bound to happen.
If you love his past work, try this. As a first entry into the world of Philip Glass, it might prove a bit difficult, and his score to The Hours might work far better. Not a complete failure, but not the success we were hoping for.
the capital city of Thueringen. It was magical and riveting from start to finish.