Friday, July 12, 2013

Cincinnati Opera sheds light on a scientific rebel with Glass's "Galileo Galilei"

Two Galileos: Richard Troxell (left) and Andrew Garland
Unlike his other biographical operas, in "Galileo Galilei"  Philip Glass and his librettist fashion a  direct approach to the subject. The music as a result seems more on a this-worldly plane than "Satyagraha"  and "Akhnaten,"  acknowledged masterpieces that thread a variety of texts on a spiritual string that's by design harder to grasp.

With early 17th-century Italy more directly in the background of Western audiences —  especially when the central conflict concerns the claims of religion versus those of science — "Galileo Galilei" has an immediacy that is fully addressed in a Cincinnati Opera production which opened Thursday night at the Corbett Theater.

Mary Zimmerman's libretto is in clear, albeit heightened, English (except for homily excerpts delivered in Latin, which Galileo translates on the spot for his daughter). The action focuses on Galileo's wonder, curiosity and delight in what he is learning, and the trouble that makes for him when set against the church's teaching about Earth's centrality in God's creation.

The work ends in spectacle, evoking the look and stage machinery of opera's beginnings, in which the astronomer's father, Vincenzo, had a hand with the fabled Camerata.  This culmination of the action moves Galileo's struggles onto a mythological plane, as the story of Orion the Hunter is retold. A final chorus brings to the fore the significance of the parallel:  The blinded Orion has been set among the stars as part of a divine bargain; Galileo endures blindness in old age after suffering for his dogma-shattering discoveries about stars and planets and their movements relative to each other. In both cases, as the English version of Haydn's "Creation" puts it: "The heavens are telling the glory of God" (or gods).
Andrew Garland (left) and Nathan Stark

The music given to the chorus borrows its grandeur from yesteryear's band concerts in the park, for some reason. Hence, in this finale Glass' style is both elevated and lowered at the same time, with the massed ensemble's lilting waltz rhythms punctuated by cymbals and snare drum.

At any rate, Glass' music must be more gratifying to sing than to play, though the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's accompaniment from the pit seemed colorful and judiciously paced under the baton of Kelly Kuo.  Thursday's performance had plenty of magnificent singing, including clarity of diction that had me wondering if the supertitles were necessary; I kept glancing up at the screen despite missing very few of the sung words.

Richard Troxell's anguished but dignified portrayal of the Old Galileo launched the performance with a riveting scena as the opera opens.  All of the astronomer's second thoughts about his discoveries and his recantation of them come out in his sightless old age. The constant arioso writing threatened to become wearying over the course of an uninterrupted 90 minutes, but it was superbly demonstrated here.

That level of success helped make the scenes with Cardinal Bertini (later Pope Urban VIII) riveting as well. Nathan Stark managed especially well the difficult balance the prelate had to maintain as both Galileo's friend and an ambitious Vatican careerist.  The intellectual argument between the two on whether faith is better upheld by learning more about God's world or using His Word absolutely as a template for human thought was compellingly staged and well sung by Stark and, as the younger Galileo, Andrew Garland.

Garland also exemplified the astronomer's fatherly devotion in a touching scene in which the tension with the Church is sublimated in Galileo's physics lesson to Maria Celeste, sung winsomely by Alexandra Schoeny (who also filled well a much different role elsewhere, as the imperious Duchess Christina). With the glowing, suspended spheres used in Galileo's demonstration and the perky, understated accompaniment, this scene was a triumph for Ted Huffman's stage direction, always sensitive to the music. Similarly enchanting was the scene, with apt masks and movement, that stages Galileo's controversial book. He conceived the work as a dialogue about planetary motion, a strategy he mistakenly thought would keep him out of trouble.

Another remarkable performance must be singled out: John Holiday's late appearance as a narrating Oracle and his earlier one as one of the accusing cardinals together constituted the most stunning, virile display of the operatic countertenor I've heard since Christophe Dumaux nailed the title role in Handel's "Tamerlano" at the 2003 Spoleto Festival.

All told, "Galileo Galilei" seems less than top-drawer Glass, small-scale portraiture that in this production is fortunately given a marvelously thoughtful context. However troubling the issues raised, the experience falls pleasurably on eye and ear.

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