GLASS: Galileo Galilei (complete opera) – Richard Troxell (Older Galileo)/ Lindsay Ohse (Maria Celeste)/ Andre Chiang (Younger Galileo)/ Nicholas Nelson (Pope Urban VIII)/ John Holiday (Cardinal 1)/ Matthew Hayward ( Cardinal 2)/ Jose Rubio (Cardinal 3)/ Anne Mckee Reed (Sagredo)/ Caitlin Mathes (A Scribe)/ Bix Brotherton (Galileo as a child)/ Portland Opera Orch./ Anne Manson – Orange Mountain Music OMM 0091, (2 CDs) TT: 2:15:32 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
Chicago’s Goodman Theater is responsible for the 2002 commission and premiere of Galileo Galilei, Philip Glass’s eighteenth opera. The one-act show is in 18 contiguous scenes, and starts off with the old Galileo after his trial for heresy meditating on religion, his break with the church, art, science, and every conceivable relationship among them all. At the end the young Galileo is watching an opera by his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a member of the Florentine Camerata (who supposedly created the art form of “opera”, though this is an oversimplification of its origins) about the motions of the celestial bodies! One of the inner stories of this piece is Galileo’s relationship with his daughter, Maria Celeste, who was a nun who died at the age of 33, leaving the father heartbroken. But this substratum to the tale does show the scientist to be more a man of faith than is often assumed, affirmed by his child.
As you might guess, an opera of this kind is wordier than most, and Glass tries not to subsume the text in overly complicated and complex music. Though he is successful in this it also means that much of what we get is rather declamatory and preachy, though the “trial” scene does get rather lively at points. Vocally there are some very difficult moments that are handled exceptionally well by all concerned, Richard Troxell and Lindsay Ohse bearing most of the burden though the entire cast does a fine job. Fascinating though the premise of this piece is, the action is rather limited, and this puts a lot of responsibility on the integrity of the arias and set pieces. Though Glass has gotten more melodically inclined over the years, his particular brand of minimalism has changed very little, stylistically almost set in stone as it was forty years ago, and so much of what I hear in this work is quite repetitive in nature—there is not a lot of variation available in his language that he hasn’t already tried. Nevertheless, his dramatic instincts are as finely honed as ever, and what drama is inherently present in this libretto is exploited to the fullest.
The Portlanders have put on a first class production in every way, though the orchestra is quite small, and I think that a larger string section might have added to the fullness of sound in spots—I don’t know if this is what the composer had in mind when he wrote it or not. The sound is robust and clear, and this is a fine addition to Glass’s Orange Mountain catalog, even though it is not one of the best of his operas.