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Galileo Galilei

Portland Opera

On March 30, Portland Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Galileo Galilei, Philip Glass's 2002 chamber opera for nine singers and sixteen instrumentalists, as the company's annual Studio Artists production in the 880-seat Newmark Theatre. Like Portland Opera's 2009 mainstage production of Glass's Orphée, Galileo Galilei was recorded for commercial audio release. 

The libretto is by Mary Zimmerman, wrote wrote it with Glass and Arnold Weinstein. In ninety minutes and one act, the opera presents ten scenes in reverse chronology: blind and near death, Galileo remembers his past; he recants his heliocentric hypothesis but is sentenced to house arrest; his daughter, a nun, sends love and pears from the convent garden; Church officials question him about his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems; he writes the Dialogue and sees its characters discuss its theories; he conducts inclined-plane and falling-object experiments; he walks with and is warned by a pope-to-be cardinal; as a church lamp swings, he theorizes on pendulums; he explains the telescope to three ladies of the Medici family; as a young boy, he (anachronistically) watches an opera by his father, one of the Florentine Camerata. The reverse order suggests and, in performance, reinforces the notion that Galileo Galilei is not primarily about the scientist's life or a science–religion conflict or acute injustice but about the joy of discovering the world's wonders.

Glass's music in Galileo Galilei generally is most engaging in the scenes of joyous discovery, less so in the early scenes in which Galileo faces death or an inquisition. In Scene 2, raising pitch and dynamic level when he states the hypothesis, Galileo makes it clear that he fervently believes what he says he is recanting. In the convent garden, his daughter caps her aria with an ecstatic vocalise over a rocking, percussive orchestra. Sometimes the music is both predictable and effective: the Dialogue's theories are discussed on a gondola to a barcarole rhythm; balls roll down an incline and fall to a descending theme passed among instruments; the lamp pendulum swings to a repeating circular figure. As often in Glass, scenes break off without cadence, which, as they are many and short, seems more awkward than usual. In the lush last scene, at an opera about the love of Orion and Eos and his resurrection as a constellation, all nine voices hymn the wonders of love, of stars, of opera.

Stage director Kevin Newbury and designers Curt Enderle (sets), Sue Bonde (costumes) and Don Crossley (lighting) created a production that was fluid and playful in the scenes of discovery and stiff and formal in the Church-dominated ones. Concentric circles above the stage suggested the solar system; from the outer circle hung lamps that could be raised, lowered or swung. Props included lanterns, ladders and sheets backlit for shadow play. Costumes were in period, usually black and white, women in high collars, pope and cardinals in cardinal red, with an infusion of turquoise for the last scene's opera. The singers helped each other dress, moved scenery and rarely left the stage. 

Tenor Richard Troxell, who usually plays young men, was persuasive as Older Galileo, yielding midway to smooth baritone André Chiang (Salviati, Younger Galileo). Soprano Lindsay Ohse, initially tight on top as Galileo's daughter Maria Celeste, loosened in the vocalise and sang beautifully as Duchess Christina in the last two scenes. Bass-baritone Nicholas Nelson (Pope Urban VIII, Simplicio, Cardinal Barberini) sang with outstanding clarity and focus. Caitlin Mathes (Scribe, Maria Maddalena) contributed an elegant mezzo, Anne McKee Reed (Sagredo, Marie de Medicis, Eos) a bright soprano. Dulcet countertenor John Holiday and strong baritones Matthew Hayward and José Rubio sang cardinals, oracles, a priest and a servant. Conductor Anne Manson held everything together, as central and as solid as gravity. spacer


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