James Gill Photography
John Arnold as Younger Galileo in Madison Opera's <i>Galileo Galilei.</i>
Philip Glass's Galileo Galilei has had rather limited circulation around the operatic world, so it was a brave step for Madison Opera to take it up. But the step has paid off, with perhaps the best yet of the company's small, midseason productions in the Overture Center's intimate Playhouse.
Running 90 minutes, in 10 scenes without intermission, the plot of the piece touches responsibly on the history of the epochal scientist in his struggle between reason and faith. The libretto is literate and quite sensitively wrought, often using actual texts of the time.
The action moves in reverse chronology, from the anguish of his last years, back through his submission to the church, his trial, his involvement with sensitive cosmographic thinking (Copernicus, you know), his youthful pursuits of scientific discovery (even amid scriptural conflicts), his triumphant invention of the telescope, and his youthful experiences with his musician father at the culture of the Florentine court. An imaginary opera given there, on the myth of Orion, brings us back the blind old man in the transcendent ecstasy of his quest for the heavens.
The designation of the entire work as an opera is a sign of the blurred categories of our time. Philip Glass is, of course, one of the founders of the Minimalist school of composition. While his earlier stage works have led him to some fairly impressive musical work, this Galileo score is not on that level. The instrumentation, calling for only 13 players, is in the familiar line of cycles of repetition, devoid of any kind of lyric content or flow. It provides rather a kind of sonic carpet for the singers, actually quite supportive and not at all distracting. Nor is there much explicitly melodic content or lines in the declamatory singing set above it.
Still, Glass provides his singers with completely comfortable and lucid vocal writing. It is less an opera in the traditional sense and more a theater piece. And it proves a very satisfying one, with many touching and effective dramatic moments. Especially so thanks to a very clever production designed by Barry Steele and directed by A. Scott Parry. There is no set to speak of; all the action is played out within three large discs, one on and one above the stage floor, and another at the back, onto which apt but unobtrusive projections are run. As always, Karen Brown-Larimore's costumes are elegantly varied.
The production is particularly fortunate in its vocal team. A total of 25 roles is distributed among 11 singers. The character of Galileo is divided into older and younger personifications. Tenor William Joyner as the lonely elder and baritone John Arnold as the affirmative youth each give performances of outstanding vocal and acting strength -- and look quite plausible as the same man at two different ages.
Among other assignments, Dean Peterson brings his powerful bass voice to the Barberini cardinal who, as later Pope Urban VIII, betrays his former friend. In female roles we meet a lot of old friends: sopranos Jamie-Rose Guarrine and Saira Frank, plus ever-dependable mezzo Allisanne Apple. And young Jennifer DeMain does her parents credit as the youthful personification of Galileo's beloved daughter. Despite a few rough instrumental moments, conductor Kelly Kuo maintains a stable beat.
After the autumn's glorious Eugene Onegin, this is Madison Opera's second triumph of the season. It plays again Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m.