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Feathers and lead

11/01/2002 -  2,3, 5-9 November 2002
Philip Glass: Galileo Galilei
Carl Halvorson (Older Galileo), Samuel L. Smith (Pope Urban VIII/Simplicio), Alicia Berneche (Older Maria Celeste), Eugene Perry (Younger Galileo/Salviati), Donita Volkwijn (Grand Duchess Christina/Sagredo), Elizabeth Reiter (Young Maria Celeste), Mark Crayton, Gregory Purnhagen, Andrew McQuery, Sarah Shepherd, Lawrence Di Stasi, Tess Given, Mandi Michalski, Tim Mullaney, Matt Orlando, Peter Sciscioli, Thomas Brown-Lowe (Child Galileo), Cydney Helsdown (Child Duchess Christina)

Musicians from the City of London Sinfonia

Beatrice Affron (conductor), Mary Zimmerman (director)

With librettist and director Mary Zimmerman an unknown quantity, Philip Glass's Galileo Galilei was a daunting prospect: a historical and scientific topic combined with thoughts of Glass's earlier massive works and the cool if lugubrious Monsters of grace (plus an ominous early start at the Barbican) promised a weighty evening. But it turned out to be either a feather or a very small lead ball, depending on your mileage. Zimmerman's libretto moved backwards in neat scenes from Galileo's isolation and blindness in old age to his childhood presence at an exuberant incunabular opera written by his father. It was tidy and lucid, long on good humour if short on wit. Glass music used his usual musical methods, with perhaps increasing vocal fluidity, to uncharacteristically insubstantial effect. Galileo is to Einstein on the beach as The firebrand of Florence was to The eternal road.

The ninety minutes flew by in a sequence of gently moving and often charming set pieces. Scholarship, particularly the recently edited letters of Maria Celeste, Galileo's daughter and scientific muse, was processed into old-fashioned children's history and then animated: cheerful young servants acted out the equations of inertia and tossed about feathers and balls in Galileo's garden as he wrote them down; a sacristan clunked the chandelier in church by accident and Galileo used his daughter's pulse to time the swing. Orion, the final opera within the opera, was invented by Zimmerman and Glass but entirely plausible. It was an Ovidian extravaganza in which the entire order of the universe, day and night, sun and moon, was comically maintained by sexual desire: Orion, blinded because of his love for Merope, the moon, can have his sight as long as he also visits the dawn goddess, so he charges across the sky every night and keeps the dome of the heavens turning.

Presenting this mythological version of astronomy at the end, in an amusing, idiotic production, sent the audience out happy (in general), but it undermined any sense of progress in Galileo's thought: the idea seemed to be that the cosmic order was always there in all its richness, whether the earth was at the centre or the sun was. If this were true, neither Galileo's scientific persistence nor his recantation would be all that important in the grand scheme of things, as they certainly are. The silly prosecuting cardinals and the amiably duplicitous Pope Urban likewise suggested that Galileo's trial was a tempest in a teapot, that it doesn't matter too much whether evidence and reason prevail over received wisdom or not. As a result, the reverse telling of the story, though niftily done, seems trivial, worlds away from the poignancy the same technique produces in Merrily we roll along or Betrayal. Similarly, the acrobatics and accumulations of images and objects between scenes suggest Jumpers or Arcadia, but without a trace of the emotional depth.

Still, the cast (touring with the production) and the local orchestra performed with endearing lightness. Carl Halvorson as the older, finally blind, Galileo suggested more seriousness than the work delivered, and sang rather finely. Alicia Berneche was a bit haywire as the adult Maria Celeste, comforting him in his persecution from her convent. Samuel L. Smith was a standard-issue stupid music-theatre baritone as the Pope. Donita Volkwijn was charming as the naughtiest of three astronomically inclined duchesses who take up the young Galileo for his telescope. The ensemble made a pretty good job of getting the words over in spite of amplification and sang in style.

H.E. Elsom



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