Glass, one of a handful of successful American opera composers, has chosen the heretical Italian astronomer as the hero of the opera that had its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Gilman Opera House with four performances last week. It was first staged at Chicago's Goodman Theater in June.
It is appropriate that the academy (BAM) opened its 20th anniversary Next Wave Festival with "Galileo Galilei" because the festival's inaugural presentation in 1983 was Glass's opera, "The Photographer." The academy had previously premiered two of the composer's most performed operas, "Einstein on the Beach," which had little to do with science, and "Satyagraha."
Glass also wrote the libretto of "Galileo Galilei" in collaboration with Mary Zimmerman and Arnold Weinstein. Zimmerman, a Northwestern University drama professor associated with the Goodman Theater who is best known for her "Metamorphoses, currently on Broadway, also directed the production.
It dramatizes the salient events in Galileo's career in reverse chronology, underlining the conflict between faith and reason. Reverse chronology is never a good idea, as proved by Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" and the recent Christopher Nolan film "Memento," and its doesn't work well here, either, leaving some in the audience confused.
The opening scene shows the astronomer as old and blind, enduring the ignominy of house arrest as punishment for supporting Copernicus' theory that the sun is the center of our universe, not the earth as described in the Bible. Later scenes show Galileo in middle life and as a child.
Although the opera tends toward static pageantry in the tradition of Renaissance masques, a few scenes are dramatic in nature.
Galileo's appearance before the Inquisition on charges of heresy and his recantation to save himself from an auto da fe execution has plenty of tension, and his demonstration with balls on an inclined plane to prove that bodies of unequal weight will respond to gravity at the same rate is fascinating to watch and has comic touches.
There are nine scenes and an epilogue, running only 75 minutes, and a basic colonnaded piazza setting that is transformed into a variety locations including street scenes, a chapel, palace rooms, and a garden. Thanks to the design by Daniel Ostling and inventive lighting by T. J. Gerckens, "Galileo Galilei" has all the visual grandeur of Renaissance Italy reinforced by rich period costumes designed by Mara Blumenfeld.
Although Glass' music does not aspire to operatic grandeur, his signature compositional style of endlessly spooling arpeggio figures - inspired by the Indonesian gamelan - has been so refined over the years that it has begun to throw off unexpected lyrical passages, occasional arias less declamatory than in his previous work, and a melodic choral anthem for the epilogue.
Eugene Perry makes a stalwart younger Galileo, who takes over in scene six, and his resonant tenor has moments of great beauty. John Duykers cuts an impressive figure as the old Galileo, dominating the first five scenes with his bulk and vocal power. Matthew Mendelson plays the astronomer as a gallant child smitten by an angelic blonde Pisan duchess played by Naomi Sherman.
Alicia Berneche is affecting a Galileo's daughter, lending her lovely soprano to the opera's most melodic aria, and Andrew Funk is splendid as Pope Urban VIII, especially in a garden scene when he was still Cardinal Barberini, a fatuous would-be poet who admires Galileo and warns him against dangerous theorizing. It is the best characterization in the opera, challenged only by the florid acting of Mary Wilson in the role of Duchess Maria Christina, the little Pisan playmate of Galileo's now grown into a voluptuous woman.
In the final scene, Galileo and the Duchess recall their childhood friendship and a night when Galileo's composer father, Vincenzo Galileo, staged one of his operas at the Pisan court. The epilogue is a re-enactment of the opera about Orion, blinded for his love of Merope and healed by Eos. Little Galileo watches by holding his rolled up program to his eye like a telescope, which he would later invent.
Appropriately enough, a small group of free-lance musicians calling themselves the Eos Orchestra made its BAM debut providing an accompaniment to the opera that had the sound of chamber music rather than that of the usual big opera orchestra. It played with great distinction under the baton of William Lumpkin.