Review: GALILEO GALILEI at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

Opera Theatre of St. Louis opens a glorious "Galileo Galilei" by Phillip Glass

By: Jun. 17, 2024
Review: GALILEO GALILEI at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
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“Hats off gentlemen!  A genius!”

Are you a fan of Phillip Glass?  (Well, who of us gray folks are?)  And yet Glass is without doubt among the most influential composers of our lifetime.  One hears his influence everywhere!  Pop, rock, film-scores, classical music, jazz—every genre has absorbed the subtle, insistent, repetitious style of Phillip Glass. 

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has opened an utterly glorious production of his opera, Galileo Galilei.  It reconfirms OTSL’s place among the finest opera companies in the world.  And it will assuredly help you resolve your issues with Phillip Glass.

This work, which premiered in 2017, presents a dreamlike view of that polymath who was the father of the scientific method, and his confrontation with the Catholic Church over his published works—in particular his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (i.e. the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories of planetary movement).

Tycho Brahe had compiled massive data on planetary motion.  These data led Copernicus to propose the helio-centric system.  Galileo, having perfected the telescope, observed things which concretely supported the factual truth of the Copernican  system.  But the Church, armed with the Inquisition, disagreed.  Galileo, a deeply faithful Catholic, was tried for heresy.  He apologized, he recanted, but he was sentenced to a lifetime of “house arrest”.  His future writings were banned.

Without intermission, this opera is only ninety minutes long—but the experience is so musically and visually rich and intense that any more would be overwhelming.  It begins at the end, as it were.  We see Galileo looking back over his life.  He’s nearly blind from looking too long at the sun.  Each of the ten scenes takes a step backward in time.  The trial, his first interview with the Inquisitors, his old friendship with a now-Cardinal.  We see the loving relationship with his daughter Marie Celeste (now dead).  She had been cloistered in a nunnery because (she being illegitimate) her father could afford no other life for her.  We see three noble ladies who were his early friends.

OTSL’s artistic director James Robinson is the stage director for this production, and his assembly of designers and singers will make you swallow your gum.  It’s so breathtakingly perfect!  The set, costumes, and lighting are to die for.  If you don’t mind being gob-smacked, take a look at the production photos at:

Set designer Allen Moyer presents a small classic proscenium arch.  This, in various rotations, will be subject to amazing visual projections by Greg Emetaz—the orbits of the planets, the vast starry heavens, great heavy moons, a forest of leaves, a cathedral’s vaulting ceiling.  In the end it becomes a baroque stage for the presentation of the myth of Orion.  The deft, dramatic lighting is by Eric Southern.  Costumes are by Marco Piemontese, a true master.  Galileo, the various ladies, the ecclesiastical authorities (pope, cardinals, inquisitors, priest, nun, scribe) are all meticulously,  correctly period—and yet dramatic and richly colored.  Performers in the “Orion” opera-within-an-opera are all in flowing white and gold.  It’s gorgeously baroque—golden cuirasses, snow-white round-hose/tutus as if made of swan’s down.  It's magnificent!

The entire production is immensely theatrical.

Many in the cast sing multiple roles, while two singers carry the role of  Galileo (older and younger).  Tenor Paul Groves sings the older man;  he beautifully conveys Galileo’s internal struggle between his Catholic faith and the proof that he has seen with his own eyes.  The younger Galileo is sung by Sean Michael Plumb;  his is, I think, the most outstanding voice in the cast;  powerful and true, it so easily fills the hall.

Galileo confronts three Cardinals (Elijah English, Robert Mellon, Jared Werlein) and the Pope (Hunter Enoch).  He stands before two Inquisitors, defending his writings.  He talks with his daughter Maria Celeste, attends mass with her.  He gives a lecture on analytical dynamics to a roomful of lab-coated scientists.  We see a gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice at Carnival time, where friends debate the celestial theories.

Vanessa Becerra sings a very lovely Maria Celeste.  Other splendid voices include Michelle  Mariposa, Lucy Evans, Kathleen O’Mara, Jennifer Kreider, Brad Bickhardt, Gabriella Linares, Luke Elmer, Emilio Vasquez, and David Wolfe.   Kekoa Blakemore and Louisa Russell appear as Galileo and the Duchess as children.  These are silent roles, but their young beauty carries to the last row.

Throughout the opera Glass adorns the religious and scientific questions with touches of nature’s beauty—flowers, butterflies, gardens, and of course the beauty of the stars.  And under the hands of  Messrs. Moyer, Emetaz, Southern, and Piemontese these are very, very beautiful indeed.

Special praise is due to choreographer Seán Curran and wig-and-makeup designers Krystal Balleza and Will Vicari. 

Musically there is great variety.  As usual Glass uses the orchestra as background;  the singers are pretty much on their own.  But the orchestra provides such emotional support, such threat, such calm peace—always in that iterative, slowly evolving Phillip Glass style.  But towards the end there appears (“What’s this?”) a real old-fashioned waltz!  Then a few phrases that might have come from a traditional concert band!!  (That Glass fellow is full of surprises.)

And James Robinson fills every slightest moment of the music with truly meaningful stage business and movement. 

The whole package is Robinson’s.  When I say, “Hats off, gentlemen!” he is the genius to whom I refer.

It’s all very dreamish and stylized, but many details nail it to the historical time and place.  The antiphonal placement of the chorus out behind the audience suggests a cathedral. 

The libretto is by Mary Zimmerman (with Glass and Arnold Weinstein).  Ms. Zimmerman (of the Looking Glass Theatre) wrote very successful adaptations of Metamorphoses and The Odyssey.  She’s got a great sense of the theatrical.

One impressive tiny dramatic element is the use of counter-tenors.  I had the good fortune many decades ago to see Lunt and Fontanne in their production of Durrenmatt’s The Visit, in which the rich Mme. Zachanassian wreaks cold vengeance on the village that had banished her.  Among her entourage are two men, formerly her enemies, who are now her blind eunuchs.  Sixty-six years later I still shudder at that message of their profound ownership by their mistress.  Zimmerman/Glass make one of the Inquisitors a counter-tenor.  That choice helps to cement the time period, but it also recalls that shudder at a powerful man who is so totally, gleefully committed to his mistress, the Church.

The excellent orchestra (members of the St. Louis Symphony) are under the gifted baton of Kwamé Ryan.  Chorus Master Andrew Whitfield has done impressive work!

Galileo Galilei, by Phillip Glass, continues at Opera Theatre of St. Louis through June 29.


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