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I'M A BELIEVER: Galileo Galilei at BAM, with John Duykers as the gadfly scientist.
Photo: Richard Termine

Whatever one thinks about Galileo Galilei – the opening attraction at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s twentieth Next Wave Festival and Philip Glass’s latest operatic pageant – the show looks smashing. But then, these things always do. A writer-illustrator I know who loathes Glass’s music was once hotly wooed by the composer to collaborate on a project; he told me that he had been sorely tempted simply because Glass extravaganzas are always so lavishly funded and carefully mounted.

This one focuses on the sixteenth-century scientist, his radical theory that the earth revolves around the sun, his problems with the clergy over such heresy, his experiments with motion and invention of the telescope, and his contented family life. The text, written by Mary Zimmerman with Glass and Arnold Weinstein, intriguingly traces all these events in reverse chronology, ending with the boy Galileo watching an opera by his father, Vincenzo. That device and other interesting points – Galileo’s struggles to reconcile faith and science and the irony of his going blind in old age – are never examined very closely or with much theatrical energy. The overall blandness of the piece may be partially due to the fact that the words are mostly inaudible. Glass’s clumsy vocal writing is at fault here, but the banal score doesn’t help. This is music that virtually never seizes the dramatic moment or digs below the surface as Glass churns out variations on the same dreary boilerplate he’s been dishing up for years.

That gives an audience 95 minutes to contemplate Daniel Ostling’s handsome sets and Mara Blumenfeld’s exquisitely detailed costumes, all strikingly lit by T. J. Gercken. One almost wishes that a better opera could occupy these depictions of the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the Inquisition’s chambers in Rome, Cardinal Barberini’s immaculately groomed castle gardens, or Galileo’s own comfortable home. With so little to work with, the singers are less distinctive than the spaces they inhabit, but John Duykers as the older Galileo, Eugene Perry as the scientist’s younger self, Alicia Berneche and Mary Wilson as the ladies in his life, and Andrew Funk as a variety of church dignitaries do what they can to bring some life to the opera.

Like its immediate predecessors, Galileo Galilei seems destined for a short shelf life; it won’t be long before a new Glass opera drops off the assembly line to take its place – no one, it seems, wants to see these things more than once. Meanwhile, if bam insists on producing the tired music theater of Philip Glass, it needs a new marketing slogan. “Next Wave” is definitely a misnomer for these retro goods.

Productions of Strauss’s Salome do not get more luridly graphic than the new one currently on view at the City Opera. By the time this Judean princess is through chewing on the head of Jochanaan, she is drenched in blood and sexually spent, having used the grisly object to realize every depraved fantasy a horny pubescent girl could possibly imagine. Such a gross scene was not exactly what Oscar Wilde had in mind when he wrote the play that Strauss set to music, but no one could accuse director Ian Judge of making up anything not suggested by the text. Still, Wilde expected to see a trace of girlish innocence in his Salome, here a petulant monster from the moment she fidgets into view to her death at the hands of Herod’s soldiers. Even her white prom gown and naturally curly hair look vaguely repulsive.

I congratulate Eilana Lappalainen for her ability to survive the title role, an arduous workout that would surely have left most sopranos gasping for breath. That said, death did not come soon enough to still this problematical voice, consistently tight and wiry, beset with a terminal wobble – by far the most excruciatingly ugly sound I’ve heard in the role since I first saw the opera 50 years ago.

Otherwise, the City Opera has fielded a strong cast, headed by Mark Delavan’s burly Jochanaan, Richard Berkeley-Steele’s oily Herod, Linda Roark-Strummer’s reptilian Herodias, and Brandon Jovanovich’s besotted Narraboth. The orchestra is no Vienna Philharmonic, but George Manahan’s musicians cope valiantly with the complex score and convey much of its instrumental color. Tim Goodchild’s sets and costumes locate the biblical action in what seems to be the spiral-staircase lobby of an S&M Hollywood resort done up in Victorian décor, a kinky idea, though hardly the most bizarre twist in Salome fashions these days.

Why Plácido Domingo has chosen to sing the title role in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier is a mystery, particularly when he can pretty much write his own ticket at the Metropolitan Opera. This music, which he sang gloriously 30 years ago, is now far beyond his reach – even with downward transpositions, he had to omit the climactic high note in his last-act aria on opening night. The middle of Domingo’s voice continues to sound strong, but with so much of the role now at lower-than-score pitch, he is often forced to dip down into the weaker bottom part of his tenor, where the tone lacks resonance, firmness, and projection. Signs of a struggle were apparent all evening – no wonder his performance seemed so perfunctory and lifeless.

There are precious few other reasons to justify this sorry revival, certainly not the Maddalena of Sylvie Valayre. Her soprano is several sizes too small for the part, especially when James Levine starts whipping up his orchestra into a brassy frenzy, and the lower keys do her no favors either. Juan Pons, on the other hand, can be heard loud and clear, crudely bellowing Gérard’s music to the rafters. Among the dozen or so cameo roles, the best is Wendy White, who wrings every ounce of pathos from Madelon’s little aria as she renders up her last grandson to the revolutionary tribunal.

Classical Music Listings
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Galileo Galilei
A Philip Glass opera.
Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The Richard Strauss opera.
City Opera.

Andrea Chénier
The Giordano opera.
Metropolitan Opera.

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