That so great that you got to see this. There isn't even a recording of this opera yet. I've heard that it is lyrical in parts. Was it?Performance of 11 July 2013
The Corbett Theater, School for the Creative and Performing Arts
Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Mary Zimmerman, with Philip Glass and Arnold Weinstein
Conductor: Kelly Kuo
Director: Ted Huffman
Set Designer: David A. Centers
Costume Designer: Rebecca Senske
Old Galileo: Richard Troxell
Young Galileo/Salviati: Andrew Garland
Maria Celeste/Duchess Christina: Alexandra Schoeny
Pope Urban VIII/Cardinal Barberini/Simplicio: Nathan Stark
Cardinal #1/Oracle #1: John Holiday
Cardinal #2/Servant/Oracle #2: Jonathan Stinson
Cardinal #3/Priest: José Rubio
Maria Maddalena/Scribe: Audrey Walstrom
Sagredo/Marie de’ Medici/Eos: Meghan Tarkington
Some thoughts on yesterday evening’s performance . . .
This is the first CO production to be performed in the Corbett Auditorium at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which is located at Elm Street and Central Parkway a few blocks south of the Opera’s major performance venue, Music Hall. The company now speaks of an “opera campus” in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which may also include Memorial Hall, just south of Music Hall on Elm Street. The Corbett Auditorium seats 750 and is a suitable venue for chamber operas – or, I suspect, works that the Opera administration doesn’t think will attract a large-enough audience to justify the expense of using Music Hall, where the Springer Auditorium (Reuben, not former Mayor Jerry!) seats 3,516. If this arrangement enables the Opera to continue programming some new or less-popular operas each season, that’s a plus. So is saving money somewhere other than in the quality of the casts.
This one-act opera, which lasts approximately 90 minutes, is arranged in 10 scenes. In the first, we experience the aged astronomer, blind from all of the time he spent looking at the sun, recalling the events of his life and questioning his actions. In particular, he remembers recanting his theories about the universe to the Church. During the earlier scenes, we encounter the older Galileo, facing Church authorities and then reading a letter from his daughter, Maria Celeste, who has entered a convent. The Young Galileo appears in the opera’s second half, expounding on his theories, walking in the garden with Maria Celeste and the friendly Cardinal Barberini (who later becomes Pope), and then presenting his telescope to the Duchess Christina and her ladies-in-waiting. The Duchess recalls a time when she and Galileo were children and watched an opera composed by his father, Vincenzo. In the final scene, Galileo and the Duchess, as children, are listening to his father’s opera with the story of Orion, in which the mythical hunter, who was blinded, seeks out and is cured by Eos. There is clearly a parallel to the elderly, blind astronomer, who uses the story of the planetary figures as the means by which he is reunited with his deceased daughter.
I think those who equate modern opera with a lot of dissonant, cacophonous noise would be pleasantly surprised by Glass’ music. It is neither dissonant nor cacophonous, and I found it quite accessible. There is a pulsing, rhythmic drive in the orchestration – perhaps suggesting the movement of celestial bodies? It’s certainly atmospheric, and the orchestra has a significant part in reinforcing the drama and propelling it forward. Glass’ writing for his soloists can be challenging, but it’s by no means impossible to sing. An opera where scientific theories and discoveries play such a pivotal role has the potential to get bogged down in a lot of scholarly detail and lose its audience, but this work’s structure, with its succession of clearly defined scenes, keeps the drama moving forward.
There wasn’t a weak link among the fine cast the CO has assembled for this production. Richard Troxell sang Old Galileo with a clear, attractive lyric tenor that had plenty of carrying power, and his diction was immaculate. As Pope Urban VIII, a.k.a. Cardinal Barberini, as well as the philosopher Simplicio in Scene 5, Nathan Stark made a strong impression with his rich, authoritative bass and his portrayal of the fundamentally selfish man beneath the genial intellectual. Andrew Garland displayed a warm, appealing baritone in his triple roles of Young Galileo, the philosopher Salviati, and Orion. He did a superb job of clearly projecting the text in Scene 6, in which Galileo speaks to himself, working out his theories and principles (the one point in the opera where we do hear some detailed scientific information). Cincinnati regular Alexandra Schoeny was touching as Maria Celeste and appropriately regal as the Duchess Christina. Once in a while, her light lyric soprano seemed to take on a bit of a sharp edge in the upper register, but this is a very minor “beauty flaw” (and other listeners may not agree with me). I know I’ve made my aversion to countertenors and breeches roles pretty clear. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the powerful soprano voice of Cardinal #1 and Oracle #1 (in the Baroque opera scene) was not coming from a woman at all, but from countertenor John Holiday. I still may not be too keen on the practice of casting adult male characters with a voice in a woman’s normal range, but I have to admit that Mr. Holiday’s got the vocal goods. Soprano Meghan Tarkington was delightful in her roles as Sagredo, Maria di Medici, and Eos. There were also fine performances from baritones Jonathan Stinson (Cardinal #2/Servant/Oracle #2) and José Rubio (Cardinal #3/Priest), and mezzo soprano Audrey Walstrom (Maria Maddalena/Scribe). Conductor Kelly Kuo, on the podium of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led an exciting performance and also kept pit and stage in balance.
Scenic designer David Centers had created a visually stunning backdrop for the opera’s action. The stage was dominated by a symmetrical Italianate frame structure with two open towers, surrounded by balustrades, at either end, a central railed platform, and numerous stairways linking the ground, towers, and platform. At times, the background for this structure was a night sky sprinkled with stars; at other times, there was a large, glowing moon or an orange-red sun. In fact, there were so many glowing orbs of various sizes to be seen in this production that it would have made a ghost hunter’s eyes pop out. The final scene was presented as a Baroque spectacle, with enormous, white cloud cut-outs lowered from the flies, a huge yellow sun, and characters in lavish, colorful costumes. Costumes in the other scenes stuck close to historical models, though the red gloves sported by the Pope and cardinals seemed a bit over the top. Director Ted Huffman did an excellent job of managing the large numbers of soloists, chorus members, and supernumeraries who were onstage in some scenes, and providing a smooth transition between the 10 scenes.
An audio recording of the Portland (Oregon) Opera production of Galileo Galilei was supposed to be released at the end of 2012 on Orange Mountain Records, which is affiliated with Harmonia Mundi. Richard Troxell, John Holiday, and José Rubio were in the cast there, as well. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any information about it on the web. If you’re interested in hearing some excerpts from the opera, I’ve attached a couple of clips from the Portland production. The costumes appear to be the same as the ones used here, but the sets are different. (Richard Troxell was also much easier to hear last night than he seems to be in the first video.)
Also, I wonder if Philip Glass is confused. Galileo's father was a member of the Florentine Camarata but never composed an opera as far as I recall.