A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jan 30, 2012
09:53 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Opera Reaches for the Heavens in 'Galileo Galilei’

Madison Opera Reaches for the Heavens in 'Galileo Galilei’

One of the best things about Madison Opera is that it has cultivated a tradition of putting their middle production of the season in the intimate Playhouse of Overture Center, and using the unique possibilities of that intimate theater to offer something off the beaten operatic path.

This season’s offering was the almost ten-year-old Galileo Galilei of the 75-year old (as of January 31) Philip Glass. For those unfamiliar with this specific work, but generally exposed to the elder statesman pigeonholed as a “minimalist,” a number of pleasant surprises were in store.

The 90-minute work is in ten connected scenes, presented without a break, and the story unfolds chronologically backwards, with Galileo as an old man, and ending with an “opera within an opera,” purportedly a work produced by the astronomer’s father, who was a member of the Venetian company credited with producing the earliest operas. Given this context of bending and arching time, the set/stage for Madison Opera’s presentation was brilliant: Three large, white disks, one on which the characters performed, one directly behind them, and one directly above.

All three of these surfaces served to project images of the heavens, or numbers and geometric drawings, etc. The overall effect was one of a vast timelessness and boundless mysteries — a most apt backdrop for a drama about the struggle between dogma and science, belief and discovery, and the unanswered questions regarding life and death itself.

Barry Steele is credited in the program with Production Designer, but let us give praise as well to Kenneth Ferencek as Production Manager and Billy Larimore as Technical Director…and kudos all around to Madison Opera itself, which in this case presented this staging entirely on its own.

As for the musical surprises and execution, Glass composed for a baker’s dozen of orchestral players and one keyboard — not the synthesized, reeds-heavy sound of much of his earlier work. While there is some measure of arpeggiated and/or ostinato patterns, the overriding impression is of a great variety of expressive timbres that subtly support some beautiful and dramatic vocal lines.

Kelly Kuo took charge of the conducting duties, and had a cast of depth and power at his disposal. William Joyner immediately made a lasting impression in the opening scene, as the aged Galileo reflects on what, now blind, he can no longer see. Central to each of the first four scenes, Joyner was matched in vocal mastery in the third scene by soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine as Galileo’s daughter, Maria Celeste. She brought tremendous expression in bringing to life a letter she has written to her father from the convent where she lives…a scene all the more poignant as we have already learned of her premature death in her thirties.

In his Madison Opera debut, countertenor Alex Edgemon delivered bracing vocalism and control to three roles (Cardinal 1, Inquisitor 1 and Oracle 1). Also in his local debut, bass-baritone John Arnold, as the younger Galileo was every bit a dramatic match for his colleagues. Jennifer DeMain appeared as the younger Maria Celeste, and it was not a stretch to imagine her as a younger, lighter version of Guarrine.

Director A. Scott Parry used the space well as in the final scene of the “other” opera, and elicited nuanced portrayals from his principals throughout. The sold-out house on Friday night were mostly inclined to stand in approbation — and more than a few might have been willing to settle in for another hearing.

Photo of John Arnold as the Younger Galileo by James Gill Photography.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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