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DOYLE: Heresy

CD Button Halpin, O’Leary, Banks; Crowley, Crowe, Morris, Smith. English text. Heresy 021 (2)

Recordings Doyle Heresy Cover 918

GIORDANO BRUNO was an Italian Renaissance polymath who was burned at the stake in 1600 for his heretical views. In particular, the Inquisition objected to his expansion of Copernicus’s heliocentric model; in his shockingly prescient De l'infinito universo et mondi, Bruno contended that there are infinite solar systems, each with its own sun and planets. Irish composer Roger Doyle, who set out to write a literal “space opera,” saw musical potential in Bruno’s colorful career and astronomical theories. Playwright Jocelyn Clarke and producer Eric Fraad (whose label Heresy Records inspired the opera’s title and subject) fashioned a libretto along the lines of Philip Glass’s “portrait operas,” offering episodic glimpses of key points in Bruno’s life interspersed with sung excerpts from his writings. Bruno dazzles the court of Henry III with his magic mnemonic arts; Elizabeth I recruits him to spy on the French ambassador; Cardinal Robert Bellarmine unsuccessfully tries to coerce Bruno into recanting his Copernican heresy, as he would with Galileo fifteen years later. In the final scene, as the flames engulf Bruno, he sings a line from De l’infinito universo: “I cleave the heavens and soar to the infinite.”

Mere earthbound instruments played by human hands would be unworthy for a thinker whose untethered ideas reached far into the cosmos. Doyle’s accompaniments are composed of electronically generated tones and digitally synthesized acoustic timbres mixed with prerecorded material, like the viola da gamba solo that provides some local color in the French and English court scenes. These digital soundscapes recall the ambient music of Brian Eno; Doyle layers spacious drones, sprinkling them with delicate bell and piano samples. The singers are the only live performers, though their voices are edited with heavy reverb, as if we were hearing the echoes of the past. Vocal lines emerge organically out of Doyle’s sleek sonorities and progress at a tectonic pace, giving the impression of an opera unfolding in slow motion. It initially induces a dreamy, hypnotic state but soon becomes yawn-inducing, as the action almost grinds to a halt. It’s also difficult to understand the vocalists with the text stretched out at this tempo larghissimo. Doyle does manage to alleviate the tedium with a series of “SceneLink” interludes that draw on club music and electronica. These passages are charmingly retro, like some chill synthpop track you would have heard in a neon-lit oxygen bar circa 1996. Doyle also incorporates clever references to obsolete technology from the last decades: glitchy static interference, motives resembling bygone Microsoft start-up jingles and the buzzing of a Xerox machine in place of the printing press that spread Bruno’s earthshaking heresies.

As Buno, Dublin-born Morgan Crowley embodies the archetypical Irish tenor. Doyle has placed the role’s tessitura high in the singer’s upper register, and Crowley’s floating falsetto lends his character a weary vulnerability. The tenor also doubles as Bruno’s future admirer, James Joyce, who visits the astronomer in prison and sings fragments from Finnegans Wake (including a pun on Bruno’s first name: “Jour d’Anno”). With his crisp consonants and icy, vibrato-less delivery, countertenor Robert Crowe makes for a snakelike Cardinal Bellarmine. Soprano Daire Halpin is a haughty Elizabeth with her piercing vocalise and jazzed-up Queen of the Night coloratura. Caitríona O’Leary plays the Odyssean sorceress Circe, who figures in one of Bruno’s memory treatises; her multihued mezzo becomes a comforting voice for Bruno in his final hour as she ascends from her earthy lower range to airy heights.  —Joe Cadagin

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