Classical Music Review: New Releases

Philip Glass - Galileo Galilei.  BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, New York. EOS Orchestra, William Lumpkin, guest conductor.  October 14, 2002.

My cabbie and I had a hard time finding our way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, when suddenly the gingerbread facade of a building appeared from out of nowhere. This had to be it. The outside, after all, was emblazoned with the names of famous dead composers like Rachmaninov and Faure, and this fanciful covering, which is protecting BAM's opera house while it gets a much-needed facelift, turned out to be a commissioned piece by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz titled Candy BAM. The fact that Faure's name was on it struck me as significant. This great and still vastly underappreciated and underplayed musician taught Nadia Boulanger, who in turn taught the composer of the evening, Philip Glass, whose music frequently has the virtues of that great French master -- subtlety, magic, and enormous depth. And if you thought that this living American one has only a few strings on his lyre, you were in for a surprise.

Glass always tackles big, nearly impossible subjects, and his music, more often than not, meets their challenges. And though some in the BAM audience may have expected the composer and his co-authors, director Mary Zimmerman and  playwright Arnold Weinstein, to dramaturgically and musically re-write Brecht's great play on the same subject, this was clearly not their intention here. Weinstein's script is more associative -- read poetic -- than Brecht's, and it isn't interested in having the audience judge the society, or more precisely, certain reactionary powers in the Roman Catholic Church, who put the great scientist under house arrest for heresy. Still Glass' 90-minute Galileo Galilei is political, but it's political in the same highly allusive ways as his 1980 Gandhi opera Satyagraha. And the music? Well, it obviously sounds like Glass, and why shouldn't it? We don't, after all, expect Mozart to sound like Debussy, so why should Glass not sound like Glass? And to anybody who's really ( italics ) listening to the music it's obvious that Glass changes his sound from piece to piece, and that's exactly what he's done here. There were lots of surprises -- not shocks or jolts -- but surprises nonetheless in this chamber opera for 14 players.

An obvious one was the dramatic construction which moves backward through time -- beginning with the blind Galileo (1564-1642), on the day before his death (much like Columbus in Glass' Met opera The Voyage (1992), who's first seen the day before his discovery of America), and ending, not as was the composer's original intention, with the astronomer's invention of the telescope, but with an opera within an opera supposedly by his father Vincenzo Galilei (1520-1591), which his son sees as a child. This evocative conceit does more than reverse the audience's expectations of a linear narrative by ending in light instead of dark. It also foregrounds the wonder Galileo must have felt when he was making his earthshaking discoveries about the universe.

The piece is arranged in nine scenes and an epilogue. The first scene, Opening, is a gravely beautiful lament for tenor John Duykers, who originated the title role in Chicago in June 2002. The vocal writing as well as that for strings is Satie bare, but deeply expressive, with the feel if not the exact form a blues, and, in this case, a slightly ethereal one. Scene Two : Recantation, shows Galileo on his knees before three cardinals -- 1 (countertenor Mark Crayton), 2 (baritone Gregory Purnhagen), and 3 (baritone Andrew McQuery), as he repudiates his book Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief Systems of the World -- Ptolemaic and Copernican, which got him into hot water with the Church as well as many philosophers and astronomers. Glass' music here is both direct and apt -- a Renaissance-like fanfare figure in fifths is contrasted with a sinuous modal tune. The vocal entrances of the cardinals are staggered, which makes them sound both forbidding and formal, while the high register writing for countertenor makes cardinal 1's character come off as pinched and pompous.

Glass' other solutions to other dramatic problems are just as original. He doesn't, for example, write a 12-tone row to express the terror Galileo must have felt in Scene Four: Inquisition. His music here is suspenseful all right, but written "from the inside" in an entirely different way. The succeeding scene, Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief Systems of The World, is entirely charming, and has the feel of a barcarolle, while the next one, The Inclined Plane, makes its points through carefully planned harmonic and coloristic changes. And speaking of harmonies, the sharply opposed vocal lines for Galileo, his daughter Maria Celeste (soprano Alicia Berneche), and the priest (baritone Andrew McQuery, again) in Scene Eight: Lamps, sounded like they were all in different keys, which succinctly dramatized the conflicts in their world views. And the priest, modelled after the historical Dominican Thomas Caccini, dramatically intones Joshua 10:12, to prove that the sun does not move.

But the production certainly did, and the look was Renaissance lush. Zimmerman usually made effective movement choices for her singing actors, though it was probably a mistake, as my companion noted, to have Galileo and his daughter touch in Scene Three: Pears. The director's usual team of set designer Daniel Ostling, costumer Mara Blumenfeld, and lighting designer T.J. Gerckens made everything look classy or sombre. Conductor William Lumpkin, who helmed Zimmerman's Boston Lyric Opera production of Glass' Akhnaten (1984), was warmly responsive to the score, and projected that warmth and precision to his pit band, who, with only three rehearsals the previous weekend, made the music live and breathe. I should also mention the amazing contributions of sole percussionist James Saporito, who played all of the 14 instruments called for in the score, which range from woodblock, anvil and bass drum, to chimes, tambourine, and triangle. Duykers, who sang with both accuracy and fervor, was first class all the way, and very moving too. Tenor Eugene Perry, who frequently sings Glass' music, had the lighter role of the younger Galileo, as well as that of  Salviate. And the jubilant trio of Maria Madelena (mezzo Sarah Sheperd), Marie de' Medici (soprano Alicia Berneche again), and Duchess Christina (soprano Mary Wilson) were superb in Scene Nine: Presentation of The Telescope. The music of Galileo Galilei is tight, cannily constructed, and beautifully paced, and the opera's less than monumental size, could make it attractive to smaller houses, who should be able to cast it without resorting to big names.

Michael McDonagh
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