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Portland Opera: Glass on Galileo

Portland's new production of Glass's "Galileo." Credit: Portland Opera

Here’s something that happens once in a blue moon in our fair Northwest: a chance to see an opera by an iconic contemporary composer in a production being recorded for said composer’s own label. The icon in question is Philip Glass, whose 2001 chamber opera Galileo Galilei just opened in a brand-new staging by Portland Opera that also represents the work’s west coast premiere.

Though Galileo confounds expectations in its relatively lightweight approach to the fraught topic of science and religion, the production offers an engaging and often refreshingly poetic entrée into Glass’s special brand of music theater.

Presented as the main annual production showcasing the company’s emerging artists, this actually marks Portland Opera’s second outing with a Philip Glass opera. When PO presented Orphée in 2009 (part of Glass’s “Cocteau trilogy,” in a production imported from Glimmerglass Opera), it inspired hands-on involvement from the composer. The result was memorialized in the company’s first-ever
commercial recording, which earned a rave in the New York Times and filled a gap in the vast Glass discography. Similarly, the Galileo release to be edited from PO’s live performances will be the first recording of that opera.

Glass wasn’t able to participate personally this time around. His calendar for 2012 is brimming over with landmark productions and new commissions for the untiring composer, who just turned 75. On opening night, Glass was busy attending the world premiere of his latest work, a cello concerto, given by the Cincinnati Symphony.

Still, Portland’s Galileo for the most part feels at home with the unique musical-theatrical idiom Glass has evolved in his long list of works for stage and screen. (The “film-opera” Orphée straddles both.) At first glance it calls to mind another subgenre he’s known for: the abstract “portrait opera” represented by Einstein on the Beach or the Gandhi-inspired Satyagraha. But Galileo is a modest chamber opera, a study in miniatures completely different in its approach to theatrical time from the marathon proportions of those early works. The entire score lasts about 90 minutes without intermission and calls for nine singers who assume multiple roles, along with a 15-piece chamber orchestra.

Glass has always been a collaborative creator. That applies to his innovative partnerships with artists in other disciplines and to his attitude vis-à-vis the singers and players who perform his scores. The feedback between his music and the other elements of his operas really needs to be experienced in live performance.

For Galileo’s libretto he enlisted director and playwright Mary Zimmerman, who’s especially well-known for her theatrical adaptations of classic mythic stories. She also directed the opera’s premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2002. Zimmerman’s libretto (in English, performed with projected titles) incorporates historical documents from the scientist’s notorious trial for heresy, letters from his daughter, and even reenactments of a few of his famous experiments in motion and velocity to craft a dramatic arc that works chronologically backward.

Tracing out ten representative episodes of his life, the opera begins with the bitterly disappointed, blind old man under house arrest in his final year (1642) but then recedes through time until we encounter Galileo as a boy watching an opera. As synchronicity would have it, that recently born genre had been pioneered by his father, Vincenzo Galileo — himself a monumental figure in Renaissance music.

“Galileo is the personage who has accompanied me in one way or another all my life,” Glass has said. “I have always been impressed by the fact that Galileo concluded his earthly existence as a blind man. Undoubtedly, this led him repeatedly to relive all the stages of his life in his imagination.”

As a theatrical strategy, this reversal of time’s arrow yields some very curious results. The emotional character of Glass’s score becomes progressively more buoyant and cheerful as the opera continues. All the heaviness and pessimism of Galileo’s trial, of freedom of inquiry being suppressed by the Church and of the scientist selling out — the slant of Brecht’s influential dramatization — morph into a prelude to a story of unbounded, joy-filled wonder at the nature of the universe.

Kevin Newbury, who staged PO’s Northwest premiere of John Adams’s Nixon in China in 2006, underscores the sparkle and energy of the experiments. “And yet it moves,” Galileo famously said about the earth, and that’s exactly what Newbury’s direction does as the opera works backward, away from the prison house of the old man’s tormented thoughts. His nimble ensemble work has the singers effortlessly doff one character and period to don another.

PO’s main stage operas are usually performed in the cavernous 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, so it’s especially pleasurable to experience all this in the relative intimacy of a 900-seat theater (the Newmark Theatre next to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall). The  production design elements are unpretentious and easy to read yet poetically evocative. Light bulbs suspended from concentric rings evoke the starry heavens in Curt Enderle’s set, while both lighting (Don Crossley) and costumes (Sue Bonde) reinforce the opera’s trajectory from gloom and “infinite dark” to a spectacular outburst of hopeful color.

Glass’s score features several intriguing variations on his instantly recognizable style — including characterful obliggato decorations from violin, flute, clarinet and even bass drum and anvil — and grows more appealing as the opera’s emotional climate brightens. Texturally, it evolves from mostly spare writing (rarely allowing more than one voice to sound at a time) into a full-on sonic pageant for the opera-within-the-opera finale, where the entire cast joins together. Conductor Anne Manson, who also led the 2009 Orphée, understands how to shape the deceptively simple-sounding Glassian patterns into gripping moments of epiphany and is a linchpin of the production.

Glass divvies the title role between two singers (and a nonsinging part for a young boy at the end). Tenor Richard Troxell undertakes the somewhat thankless older Galileo, whose part lies in a punishing area of the voice and who is wracked by self-doubt. Mostly because of the nature of Glass’s characterization, the character really comes to life as the younger Galileo, and baritone André Chiang, one of the cast’s “studio artists” (PO’s equivalent of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program), elicits the scientist’s exuberant, insatiable curiosity with flair. Also outstanding are bass-baritone Nicholas Nelson as Cardinal Barberini/Pope Urban, a close friend in Galileo’s earlier years who later brings him to Rome to recant the heliocentric theory, and countertenor John Holiday as a Cardinal/Oracle. Young soprano Lindsay Ohse presides over one of the opera’s loveliest scenes in the vocally soaring role of Galileo’s beloved daughter, Maria Celeste.

For Galileo’s final scene, Glass and Zimmerman concoct an eccentric gloss on baroque spectacle and its deus ex machina, staging a version of the myth about the hunter Orion who is blinded and then healed as he pursues his love, the dawn. Myth and the poetic vision it represents was supposedly superseded long ago by the cold glare of science. Yet for the operatic Galileo, this artistic interpretation of the heavenly bodies is as thrilling as his observations of the laws of motion with inclined planes. It derives from the same impulse of wonder, of refusing to take the universe for granted.

If you go: Portland Opera’s production of “Galileo Galilei” by Philip Glass runs through April 7 at the Newmark Theatre at Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway in Portland, 503 241-1802.

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