The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ “Galileo Galilei” proved a timely, well told tale of truth-telling during the endless demagoguery of presidential primaries and the growing number of anti-evolution science-deniers.

January 31, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Thank you, Madison Opera. We needed that – especially given today’s Florida Republican primary.

We needed to be reminded of what true intelligence and  truth-telling are.

I am talking about the Madison Opera’s production, with four sold-out performances, of Philip Glass’ chamber opera “Galileo Galilei.”

To be honest, it is not the best work by Glass (below) I have ever heard, even though it dates from 2002 and is mature Glass that has its appeal. But because the opera has never been recorded or put on DVD or film, it is a terrific choice to stage to mark the composer’s 75th birthday, which happens to be today—coincidentally, the same day as the hotly contested Florida Republican primary.

Plus, it is the Madison Opera’s first foray into Glass, or into minimalist opera for that matter – a brave move that deserves to be praised and repeated perhaps with other Glass works or maybe something by John Adams.

But that is just one way in which this production of “Galileo,” which I saw Sunday afternoon, has proved timely.

It also was a success in that it marked four successive years of sold-out mid-winter performances for operas done in smaller venues of the Overture Center like The Playhouse and Promenade Hall. Previously, the Madison Opera staged Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land,”  Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” (below) and Kurt Weill‘s “Threepenny Opera.”

Clearly, there is a market for the smaller, less common works. It would seem these smaller and more experimental winter productions are here to stay, and I applaud that heartily. I can’t wait to see what the next season brings.

Finally, I also found the production timely on another count.

It tells the story of the Renaissance Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (below), who explored the heavens with his telescope and who defended the heliocentric, or Sun-centered, model of the universe at a time when the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church – using the Bible as an inerrant source — insisted on the Earth-centered model of the ancient Greek Ptolemy.

So this was the tale of a genuine, authentic truth-teller; the story of someone who, as the Quakers say, spoke Truth to Power, who championed facts over faith. True, he recanted his revolutionary thoughts under threat of torture and death, and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest and with the guilt of knowing he was right for speaking out and wrong for recanting.

But still, there is something inspiring in the 10 scenes of the opera that trace the trajectory of Galelio’s quiet but inquisitive heroism from youth and middle age to old age with the death of his daughter and the persecution by the Church. There is something I find reassuringly modern and also challenging about using The Scientist — and the Scientific Method — as hero.

That in itself made the production unforgettable for me since these days it is good to be reminded that what is democracy but a form of science, of peer-reviewed government, if you will. Without democracy, science is stifled. Without facts, and based only on faith, democracy degenerates and withers.

But free inquiry does not mean a free license to distort and tell untruths.

Some men and women don’t seem to know the difference between truth and truthiness. Galileo did.

But to listen to news reports right now, and for the rest of this year, is to be barraged with slanders, distortions and outright lies from all the candidates, including Barack Obama, but especially from Mitt Romney (below) and Rick Santorum to say nothing of the defeated Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Politics just isn’t as intellectually honest as science. 

Still, the most odious to me is Newt Gingrich (below). He styles himself a smart man and deep thinker, and he is educated through a doctorate. But he seems smart only in some kind of pompous and smarmy, conniving and self-promoting way. Best I can tell, he is not an intellectual in the way that genuinely deep thinkers and open-minded explorers are. That is the take-away lesson of “Galileo” for me, at least at this particular time and in this particular place.

As for the production itself, there was much to praise — and to justify the standing ovation it received. The set by Barry Steele was quite inventive and effective in using projections of Renaissance gardens and celestial maps, though the blurry soft-focus eventually became more distracting than any sharp focus might have been.

The 13 musicians, most from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Kelly Kuo (below), performed very well. Glass’ music is much harder to play than it sounds. It isn’t their fault, after all, that too much of Glass sounded the same with a kind of repetitive jackhammer aesthetic that either you take to or you don’t. I’ve heard better scores from Glass. This one could have used a few melodic lines or motives for the individual characters.

Among the singers, many of whom played multiple roles, tenor William Joyner (below right, in  a photo by James Gill) and baritone John Arnold (below left) stood out as the older and younger Galileo, respectively.

Local talents, including Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below, second from right in a photo by James Gill), Allisanne Apple (second from left) and Jennifer DeMain – curiously, all mezzo-sopranos – acquitted themselves well and dependably. (Saira Frank is on the far right.)

I also liked the effective scenes with the Inquisitors, the Cardinals and the Pope, where the singing and acting seemed in balance.

I found the mood-setting costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore a good match to the story and setting. And I liked the engaging staging by A. Scott Parry (below) up until that last five minutes, when the singers doffed their costumes for street clothes and did some silly Matisse-like Zodiac dance around the old but vindicated, if now lame and blind, Galileo before they traipsed off stage, arms waving in the air, and passed by the audience as they sang some monotonous  ta-taaa–ta-ta-taa of the score. It all seemed too much like a bad Be-In from the 1960s. Even the singers seemed uncomfortable and awkward with the finale, as if they were being asked to chant Hare! Hare! Krishna! Krishna!

Galileo, both the man and the opera, fared very well for the most part but deserved a better end. Staying in character and in the Renaissance period seemed much preferable to me.

But there is certainly room to disagree. Here are some other reviews for you to compare mine with:

John Barker’s review for Isthmus, for example, focuses more on the production and less on the context:

Lindsay Christians’ review for The Capital Times and 77 Square gives you a good sense of the technology that was used:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and its blog “Classically Speaking”:

And here is Bill Wineke’s exceptionally honest and candid review for Channel 3000:

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