Circus Days and Nights review – Philip Glass’s latest sees spectacle triumph over substance

Philip Glass calls his latest music-theatre work – his 30th by my reckoning – a “circus opera”. Staged as a collaboration between Malmö Opera and Cirkus Cirkör, Circus Days and Nights is based on the life and work of the American poet Robert Lax (1915-2000), who spent the last four decades of his life in Greece, but who in the late 1940s had worked as a clown and juggler in the Cristiani family’s circus.

That experience provided the material for many of Lax’s poems – he saw the circus as a metaphor for God’s creation – and the opera takes its title from his final collection, published in the year of his death. But the libretto, 沿って David Henry Hwang (a regular Glass collaborator), そして Tilde Björfors, the artistic director of Cirkus Cirkör, is based on the book that first established Lax as an important voice in American literature, The Circus of the Sun. ザ・ 1959 publication traces the course of a day in the life of a travelling circus.

In the opera, Lax is portrayed by two singers – as a young man by a soprano (Elin Rombo in the premiere), and as an old poet by a baritone (Jakob Högström) – who serve as both narrators and commentators on the busy life of the circus and its performers as it’s portrayed on stage around them. There are some brief reflective moments, and occasional passages of real lyrical beauty, but the dramatic thread running through it all is a very slender one. There’s always the suspicion that the music is there to support the stage spectacle more than anything. An awful lot of the writing for the eight-piece ensemble, led by the accordionist Minna Weurlander, is of the vamp-till-ready variety – Glass harking back to his minimalist beginnings – as the ringmaster and the bearded lady, the tumblers and acrobats, all do their stuff.

It’s quite a spectacle, and one of a kind certainly, but nothing in the opera promises to transcend circus life as Lax’s poems do. You appreciate the technical expertise in Björfors’ production, but take little away other than admiration for her performers’ skill.