Recantation: (left to right) Baritones Jacob Kato and Wesley McCleary-Small and countertenor Matthew Reese as the Cardinals, bass-baritone Deon’te Goodman as Pope Urban VIII (rear), and tenor Derek Jackenheimer as Old Galileo (front) in Scene Two of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]
PHILIP GLASS (born 1937): Galileo Galilei—Derek Jackenheimer (Old Galileo), Deon’te Goodman (Pope Urban VIII, Simplico, Cardinal Barberini), Matthew Reese (Cardinal 1, Father Sinceri, Oracle 1), Jacob Kato (Cardinal 2, Father Maculano, Servant, Oracle 2), Wesley McCleary-Small (Cardinal 3, Priest), Adrienne Leggett (Maria Celeste, Merope), Natalie Rose Havens (Scribe, Maria Maddalena), Lydia Pion (Sagredo, Marie de Medici, Eos), Derek Gracey (Salviati, Young Galileo), Holly Curtis (Duchess Christina), Evan Reich (Galileo as a child), Sarah Geraldi (Duchess Christina as a child), Brent Byhre (Orion), Baker Lawrimore (Oenopian); UNCG Opera Orchestra; Kevin Geraldi, conductor [David Holley, Stage Director and Producer; Randall McMullen, Scenic Designer; Trent Pcenicni, Costume Designer; Ken White, Lighting Designer; David Wagner, Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master; Chip Haas, Technical Director; UNCG Opera Theatre – Aycock Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 19 April 2015]
In his 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ So, too, is travel through the musical landscapes of four centuries of operatic repertory. One often finds in unexplored music new horizons that expand one’s personal universe. The most prevalent notion in my individual understanding of opera is that the performance of all repertory, from Monteverdi to Muhly, is or should be governed by the essential tenets of bel canto. Whether one sings the ariosi of Cavalli, the ‘pathetic airs’ of Händel, the grandiose declamations of Wagner, or the thorny lines of Reimann, the poise, placement, and projection of basic bel canto are the technical foundation upon which an impressive edifice of any style can be constructed. Hearing Richard Croft’s dulcet bel canto singing in the Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha lent legitimacy to my belief: even the complex, minimalist music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries profits as greatly from investment in the art of bel canto as do the operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Glass’s Galileo Galilei confirmed that the foremost responsibility of any singer is not to know how to sing this or that piece stylishly but simply to know how to sing. Student productions often offer fascinating glimpses of the processes by which operas are brought to life, but UNCG Opera Theatre’s Galileo Galilei was a far more enlightening experience. Here, it was not isolated details that proved most involving but the totality of the production. The unmistakable core of the performance was beautiful singing, and Glass’s music responded to this handling as memorably as Verdi’s or Puccini’s.
With a libretto by Mary Zimmerman to which the composer and Arnold Weinstein made additions, Galileo Galilei is a sympathetic but unsentimental examination of the betrayal, disappointment, and necessity of self-preservation to which genius is subjected. Though the opera’s historicity is far more accurate than those of many period epics in the international repertory, the characters are also archetypes, a condition made particularly apparent by UNCG Opera Theatre’s casting. The conflicts among faith, authority, and science are no less prominent in the Twenty-First Century than in Galileo’s time; nor are the transient politics of church and state inventions of modern times. Directed and produced by UNCG's Director of Opera David Holley, the production made extraordinary use of every spatial, technical, and musical resource at the company's disposal. Randall McMullen's scenic designs would have been a credit to theatrical productions in any of the world's opera houses or musical theatre venues. The centerpiece of the set was a grand wooden staircase, the balustrades of which ingeniously served as Galileo's inclined plane and telescope. Revolving in a full circle, the staircase was also suggestive of a sundial and effectively framed the action of the opera. Trent Pcenicni's eye-pleasing, historically-correct costumes combined with the set, Ken White's expertly-managed lighting designs, and Chip Haas’s technical direction to evoke both the physical and emotional dimensions of each of the opera's ten scenes. In the opening scene, the blind Galileo's desolation was movingly depicted, and the claustrophobic oppression of the Inquisition was omnipresent. The projections of light passing through stained-glass windows conjured an imposing cathedral more credibly than the expensive sets seen in many opera productions. Projections of celestial bodies transformed the elegant interior of Aycock Auditorium into a planetarium that reflected the heavens revealed to man by Galileo’s invention of the telescope. In every scene, the production meaningfully mirrored the flow of Glass’s music, making the reverse chronology of the opera’s structure seem not only sensible but inevitable. Observed at the start of the opera, the doubt and loneliness that darkened the last years of Galileo’s life rendered the flowering of his genius and the sweet simplicity of his childhood all the more moving.
The Trial: (left to right) Baritone Jacob Kato as Father Maculano, tenor Derek Jackenheimer as Old Galileo, mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens as the Scribe, and countertenor Matthew Reese as Father Sinceri in Scene Four of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © UNCG Opera Theatre]
Conducted by Kevin Geraldi, the UNCG Opera Orchestra excelled in playing a score that, in its difficulty and requirements of absolute precision of ensemble, spares not one musician. Though Glass’s familiar serialist idiom provides the basic structure of Galileo Galilei, the score is one of the composer’s most alluring. Any listener who alleges that Twenty-First-Century opera is not straightforwardly beautiful should hear this score. The melodic lines are often exquisitely attractive, and Glass’s writing for the elderly Galileo is as forceful and memorable as Gounod’s music for the aged Faust. The repetitive figurations that are a defining component of Glass’s singular style were executed by Maestro Geraldi and the orchestra with an engaging variety that was evidence of close and thoughtful study of the score. Serialism might seem an almost arbitrary means of crafting melodies and harmonic progressions, but there is in Galileo Galilei an expressivity that owes its poignancy to the contrasts created by the repeated musical fragments. Every member of the orchestra was an asset, a collective appreciation of the music emanating from the pit. Colin McDearman’s playing of the celesta was magical, and whether impersonating a cathedral organ or a synthesizer Rachel AuBuchon brought unerring precision to her negotiation of the pulse-like keyboard part. The alert, able string playing was complemented by uncommonly secure work from the wind instruments, exemplified by the performances of horn player Corinne Policriti and trumpeter Donnie McEwan. Maestro Geraldi’s tempi were unfailingly well-judged: the performance surged forward arrestingly without ever seeming rushed. Every phrase that emerged from the pit was aimed at the audience’s hearts, and the response to the opera confirmed that both the musicians’ efforts and Glass’s music found their target.
Towering both figuratively and literally over the opera’s first scene, ‘Opening Song,’ tenor Derek Jackenheimer was an Old Galileo so convincing that one’s knees ached in empathy as he struggled to navigate his reduced world. Tormented by blindness and memories of his beloved daughter and, a man of science to the last, desperate to justify the circumstances of his dotage with logic, he was a caged lion, exhausted and despairing but still hungry for understanding. The sting of the character’s plight was heightened by the singer’s exemplary diction: rarely is English text sung so clearly even by singers whose native language is English. Vocally, his performance was still more impressive. Possessing a strong voice over which he exercised near-perfect control, Mr. Jackenheimer projected superbly. The timbre is one of burly beauty, and his sure intonation throughout the range required by his music enabled emotionally direct portrayal of Galileo’s clashing sentiments. Set in June 1633, ‘Recantation,’ the second scene, introduced a quartet of excellent singing actors: bass-baritone Deon’te Goodman as Pope Urban VIII and countertenor Matthew Reese and baritones Jacob Kato and Wesley McCleary-Small as the interrogating Cardinals. Mr. Goodman’s firm, resonant voice lent gravity to the Pontiff’s proclamations, and the contrasting voices of Mr. Reese, Mr. Kato, and Mr. McCleary-Small blended in columnar articulations of archiepiscopal prerogative.
The mood of the performance transitioned from menace to dolorous nostalgia in the third scene, ‘Pears.’ Soprano Adrienne Leggett gave stirring accounts of selections from letters written to Galileo by his beloved daughter Maria Celeste. Her security above the staff proved vital in her assured jaunt through the punishing intervals of her part. Transporting the drama to April 1633, the fourth scene, ‘The Trial,’ pitted Mr. Jackenheimer’s Galileo against the Inquisition. Mr. Reese’s ethereal but iron-cored singing as Father Sinceri was matched with uncanny cohesion by Mr. Kato’s earthier tones. Their rejection of Cardinal Barberini’s letter of support for the scientist’s theories fell like the blow of an axe upon Galileo’s neck, and Mr. Jackenheimer evinced great consternation in his singing of Galileo’s self-defense. The fifth scene’s philosophical discussion of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, the book that led to the allegations of heresy that complicated the last decade of Galileo’s life, united soprano Lydia Pion as Sagredo with baritone Derek Gracey as Salviati and Mr. Goodman as Simplico. Slight weakness at the lower end of her range did not compromise the integrity of Ms. Pion’s performance, and Mr. Gracey enunciated Salviati’s arguments with focused tone. Costumed in garb similar to that of a Commedia dell'arte Arlecchino, Mr. Goodman’s Simplico was a personification of the good-natured Everyman, his voice caressing the phrases in which he sang of the human mind being one of God’s most wondrous creations.
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World: (left to right) Bass-baritone Deon’te Goodman as Simplico, soprano Lydia Pion as Sagredo, and baritone Derek Gracey as Salviati in Scene Five of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]
Scene Six, ‘Incline Plane,’ was in UNCG Opera Theatre’s production one of the most viscerally exciting sequences in the opera, its visual recreation of Galileo’s experiments with inclined plane that engendered his early postulation of the equation of falling bodies exhibiting great shrewdness. Eavesdropping on a conversation between Cardinal Barberini—later elected Pope Urban VIII—and Galileo in the Cardinal’s garden circa 1620, the seventh scene, ‘A Walk in the Garden,’ paired Mr. Goodman’s amiable but already nervous Cardinal with Mr. Gracey’s Young Galileo, a characterization so synchronized with Mr. Jackenheimer’s that the change of personnel was hardly noticeable despite the physical and vocal differences. The unease lurking beneath the surface of the gentlemen’s conversation was unnerving, but there was also an obvious affection between the cleric and the intellectual. ‘Lamps,’ the eighth scene, dramatized the epiphany of Galileo’s observation of pendular motion, he and his daughter conducting their scientific discourse over the ostinato of Mr. McCleary-Small’s intoning of the Priest’s Latin text. The trio of mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens as Maria Maddalena, Ms. Pion as Marie de Medici, and soprano Holly Curtis as Duchess Christina produced streams of mellifluous sound in Scene Nine, ‘Presentation of the Telescope.’ Ms. Curtis and Mr. Gracey interacted with the aristocratic intimacy of Shakespearean lovers.
‘Opera within Opera,’ the tenth and final scene, depicted Galileo and Duchess Christina as children, endearingly portrayed by Evan Reich and Sarah Geraldi, watching the opera of Galileo’s father—a still-legendary lutenist and composer widely cited as a pioneer of monody and perhaps the inventor of recitative in the modern sense—mentioned by the adult Duchess in the preceding scene. Mr. Reich and Ms. Geraldi acted with maturity despite their youth, and their brief interactions with Mr. Jackenheimer and Ms. Curtis—their older selves—were unaffectedly profound. Returning as the Oracles, Mr. Reese and Mr. Kato were again sources of strength. The pantomime enactment of the mythological entanglement of Orion (Brent Byhre), Merope (Ms. Leggett), her father Oenopian (Baker Lawrimore), and the goddess Eos (Ms. Pion) was, in effect, a symbolic retelling of Galileo’s own story: blinded by the Holy Father’s suppression of knowledge, he achieved a kind of immortality by bringing mankind nearer to the eternal dawn of self-cognizance. The closing chorus rang through the theatre like thunder, the singers’ voices soaring in homage to the perseverance of genius.
Mark Twain’s suggestion that the truth should never be shared with anyone unworthy of it is an aphorism that is starkly relevant to Galileo Galilei’s suffering and the central precept of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei. Glass’s opera is a work of absorbing musical appeal and dramatic sensitivity—in combination, the only truth needed in opera. In this appreciatively-conceived, outstandingly-rendered production, UNCG Opera Theatre proved conspicuously worthy of it.
Opera within Opera: Brent Byhre as Orion (left) and soprano Lydia Pion as Eos (right) in Scene Ten of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]