One of the most memorable moments I have had in viewing the performing arts was witnessing the opening of the original Follies on Broadway. The audience faced the remnants of a dilapidated theatre reduced to platforms and shadows; ghosts and images of the past came alive when the show began. It was a chilling moment.
I experienced the same kind of chill when the curtain rose on the opening moments of the new opera, Galileo, Galilei, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Huge massive pillars flank both sides of the stage. Upstage there is a deep blue scrim and a huge oval moon sketched with what appears to be calculations and mathematical equations from Galileo's work. Delicately placed downstage left is a beautiful old-fashioned telescope on an ancient pedestal. The cast stands in a perfect silent tableau. The audience is absolutely silent. Then the orchestration begins.
Galileo, Galilei is the new opera by Phillip Glass with libretto by Mary Zimmerman, Glass and Arnold Weinstein and direction by Ms. Zimmerman. Working on themes from the past cultural vastness, as Ms. Zimmerman has done in Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and The Odyssey, this is an attempt to trace the life of the Italian 16th and 17th scientist, Galileo, in operatic format. Opera always suggests to me lofty ideas, passion and emotional thrust. The idea of focusing this opera on Galileo's life would seem to be an interesting challenge and it works because of an ingenious directorial concept.
The opera focuses on Galileo's life by telling it backwards, as if looking through Galileo's beloved telescope in reverse. It goes from his lonely last years, blind and full of doubts, through his middle years and wondrous scientific studies and then into his childhood. Intertwined in this 90 minute opera are scenes of Galileo's discoveries, his interrogation of heresy during the Inquisition (in which he recants his conclusion that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa as in the Bible) and the loving and loss of his daughter, Maria Celeste. Unless the audience is familiar in any way with Galileo's life, it is important to read the program notes and synopsis of scenes before the show starts. Without this context, the show will only become a beautiful musical and theatrical pageant.
Opera, like musical theatre, has always been a blend of script and musical composition, and my biggest complaint about Galileo, Galilei is that Glass' score does not reach the heights of the libretto and the play's action. Glass is a minimalistic composer and, although the score and lyrics are often pulsating at times (far better, for example, than In the Penal Colony which recently played at the Court Theatre here in Chicago,) the restricted range of composition becomes repetitive. There is a bland sameness that does not match the transitions that are occurring in Galileo's life. In addition, one major inconsistency in the production is the projection of the text of the libretto. It plays prominently in the early scenes and then completely disappears.
Only the choreographic interludes which punctuate moments in the historical context of the script match the rhythm of Glass' score. There is a delightful scene involving a playground where assistants of Galileo test out his experimentation (balance, gravitation, etc.). Another scene at the end of the play involves the young Galileo enjoying a frolicsome opera program (Galileo's own father, Vincenzio Galilei, was a famous musician and composer and one who is sometimes credited with the invention of the opera form). Here the story and the score match the intended mood.
Other production values generate the richness the show deserves. Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling and Lighting Designer T.J. Gerkens work wonders with the upstage area through drops and projections suggesting the past, the present and the future of Galileo's life. The central stage area comes alive with a variety of scenes, merely suggested by a prop or a set piece. Costuming by Mara Blumenfeld greatly creates the period design. There is strong unity in all of the production elements that constantly draw our focus on the primary figure of Galileo.
The cast blends together into a beautiful ensemble. Particularly impressive are John Duykers as the older Galileo and Alicia Berneche as the older Maria Celeste. Other individuals, playing a variety of roles, suggest the historical tapestry that surrounds the story. The voices are strong and give an immediate intensity to the action focused on stage.
I have the feeling that when this show leaves Chicago, it will have to be carefully marketed to the appropriate audience. This is not a show that will appeal to the typical opera/theatre types. It cannot do well on mass appeal. This production almost represents a revolutionary theatre genre that combines the format of opera but condenses it into strong dramatic theatre. There is a certain aesthetic type, into both drama and music, that this show will hit a chord with. I wish it success!
Galileo, Galilei is presented by The Goodman Theatre, Chicago. It plays through August 4th. The Goodman Theatre is located at 170 N. Dearborn in Chicago. For tickets and further information, call (312) 443-3800. On the web: www.goodman-theatre.org.