Galileo Galilei – 9 November

Galileo Galilei

Older Galileo – Carl Halvorsen
Pope Urban VIII (earlier Cardinal Barberini) / Simplicio, Father ofMerope – Samuel L. Smith
Cardinal 1 / Cardinal Inquisitor 1 / Oracle 1 – Mark Crayton
Cardinal 2 / Cardinal Inquisitor 2 / Servant / Oracle 2 – Gregory Purnhagen
Cardinal 3 / Priest – Andrew McQuery
Older Marie Celeste / Marie de’Medici / Eos – Alicia Berneche
Scribe / Maria Madelena – Sarah Sheperd
Salviati / Younger Galileo – Eugene Perry
Sagredo / Grand Duchess Christina – Donita Volkwijn
Young Marie Celeste – Elizabeth Reiter
Servant / Priest – Lawrence Di Stasi
Servant / Nun / Merope – Tess Given
Servant / Nun – Mandi Michalski
Servant / Priest – Tim Mullaney
Servant / Priest / Orion – Matt Orlando
Servant / Priest – Peter Sciscioli
Child Galileo – Thomas Brown-Lowe
Child Duchess Christina – Cydney Helsdown

Members of the City of London Sinfonia
Beatrice Affron

Director – Mary Zimmerman
Set Design – Daniel Ostling
Lighting Design – T. J. Gerckens
Sound Design – Michael Bodeen
Video / Projections – John Boesche

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 9 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

The prospect of an opera based on the life of Galileo Galilei is an exciting one, given the possibilities of philosophical discourse, character development and scenes of Galileo expounding his ideas and explaining his discoveries, being interrogated by the Inquisition, his subsequent recantation, and so forth. The list could go on and an opera along the lines of Pfitzner’s Palestrina or Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler might have ensued.

Philip Glass’s latest opera fails to engage in any of the above and instead relies on his now well-known – and perhaps some might argue, well-worn – technique to present an amiable ninety minutes or so which essentially reflect certain aspects of Galileo’s life and work, without delving deeply into the personalities of the characters involved or any of the underlying philosophies.

As is customary with many of Glass’s theatre works, there is no straightforward narrative in the traditional sense. Instead, as the printed synopsis states, “the opera moves backward in time from when Galileo was old and blind, to when he was a boy” – in other words, presents the story ’in reverse’. Actually, the opening scene was quite touching, with the old man reflecting on his life and achievements and pondering whether his ambition and pride were the cause of his difficulties and unhappiness.

Musically, the piece began as most of the scenes did, with a two note ’rocking’ figure between the interval of a third – a device to be found in many of Glass’s works, theatrical and otherwise. The vocal writing, as ever, seems to have been fitted around the accompaniment – quite the reverse process from that normally adopted by operatic composers where vocal and melodic lines are supreme – and, as a consequence, there is little, if any, musical illumination of the words.

The libretto (by director Mary Zimmerman, with Glass and Arnold Weinstein) is not exactly inspiring or poetic, and consisted in large part of imparting information rather then fleshing out characters orconveying emotion. The following eight scenes (nine in all plus an epilogue) showed Galileo in various contexts. Initially, recanting his theories to the Pope and his Cardinals there was surely here an opportunity for some kind of dramatic interplay, but the three Cardinals – led by a countertenor with a distinctly acidic voice – merely chanted their ’accusations’, with Galileo meekly acknowledging his alleged wrong-doing. When confined, as punishment, to his villa, Galileo reads out letters from his daughter who then appears and sings of her concerns for her father. Alicia Berneche did her best to convey sympathy and care, but her vibrato-laden voice was unsuited to the high-lying tessitura of the vocal writing and as a consequence her words were indistinct. This scene concluded with Marie Celeste moving offstage singing a wordless coloratura passage that seemed out of place – stylistically – in this context.

The central scenes of Galileo explaining and exploring his ideas with his students were the most absorbing. One of his followers – Salviati – the excellent Eugene Perry – ’transforms’ himself into the younger Galileo and the wordless scene of him conducting experiments concerning speed, acceleration and motion with his assistants was musically the most interesting, with descending scales and colouristic instrumentation reflecting the movement on-stage.

A scene set in a church, with Galileo and his daughter (Elizabeth Reiter of the Children’s Chorus at Chicago Lyric Opera, who could have given a lesson in elocution to some of her adult colleagues) had momentary dramatic frisson, when a swaying lamp caused Galileo to ponder the mysteries of movement – both terrestrial and celestial. After his presentation of his latest invention – the telescope – to two duchesses and a queen (where one might have imagined music of a regal and authoritative nature) – the action shifted to an ’opera within the opera’. Galileo’s father was a musician and composed operas. Here, an operatic pastiche might have given some diversion from the – by now – tiresome arpeggios: but, no, all continued much as before. A mythical tale is presented, with characters dressed as celestial figures, holding stars and planets and suddenly the music transformed itself into a manic-sounding waltz, which seemed quite incongruous. All the representations of Galileo – old man, young man and boy – were re-united and Marie Celeste appears and, in the words of the final stage direction, “they depart for the heavens.”

A chamber orchestra of ten players, plus a synthesiser provided the accompaniment, which was thin-sounding in places, but Beatrice Affron conducted with spirit, evoking as much colour as possible from the limited palette of the score. In spite of this committed performance, and an effective production, the whole piece felt inconsequential, unlike some of Glass’s earlier operas. Perhaps because of the sheer volume of his output, he is in danger of becoming a predictable composer where once he was challenging, daring and innovative. Galileo Galilei pales besides the invention of Satyagraha, Akhnaten or the monumental The Voyage. It may sound cynical to say it, but it sounded as if Philip Glass was dutifully carrying out his obligations to a commission rather than responding to the challenge of his chosen subject.

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