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Galileo and the theocrats, like a circle ’round the sun

By Bob Hicks
April 3, 2012
Featured, Music

Richard Troxell as Older Galileo, at the center of the opera's universe. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.

“Put your arms around me like a circle ’round the sun. … I’m stealin’ back to my same old used to be.”

– Gus Cannon, Stealin’

We live in the house that Galileo built, and it’s a mobile home.

It’s been added onto, rethought, corrected, updated and upgraded, and it’s constructed from a blueprint laid out a century or so earlier by Copernicus. But it’s still Galileo’s house. We call it Earth, and it moves, as the old jug-band tune puts it, like a circle ’round the sun. The sun moves in turn in its own circle, or ellipsis, through a solar system and universe that are quickened, from their tiniest subatomic particles to their most incomprehensible stretches of emptiness, by movement – a movement, as Einstein later explained, that eventually circles back on itself.

Well, yes. Doesn’t everyone know that?

Maybe not. The world may not still be flat, but much of it is literal. And literalists don’t like it when ideas move.

What composer, I wondered on Friday evening as I watched and listened to Portland Opera’s first performance of Philip Glass’s 2002 chamber opera Galileo Galilei, could be better equipped to consider the impact of Galileo than Glass?

And how many librettists besides the playwright Mary Zimmerman could make the issues in this early 17th century scientist’s life seem so hauntingly and urgently modern? This “historical” opera, which had its premiere just months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, ripples with the sort of religious and cultural tensions that have turned global and domestic politics into dogmatic explosions waiting to happen.

If you’re expecting a review of Portland Opera’s production here, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Minds tend to wander when Glass’s music plays – if you think about it, that’s really part of the point – and what you’re reading is a crude reconstruction of the way one mind meandered, moving above and below the music’s surface, in and out of logical comprehension, making connections that are sometimes passingly and sometimes deeply attuned to what might have been on the composer’s mind. I suspect this is the way music often works, although we rarely talk about it this way. Your own meanderings, of course, will be different from mine. Go ahead: follow them.

Glass, at 75 the dean of serious contemporary composition, builds his music on waves of subtly varying repetitions looping over and over on themselves. It’s modern and primal at once, thoroughly contemporary yet suggesting traditional forms such as ragas and medieval chant: a trance-inducing doorway into alternate circles of feeling and thought. And Galileo, like few other figures in history, altered the way the world feels and thinks.

Galileo, by Ottavio Leone, 1624

Pretty much everything about Portland Opera’s Galileo Galilei moves in circles. Curt Enderle’s set is a giant golden circle, with various mechanical devices scattered about it and setting off some marvelous physics experiments. Stage director Kevin Newbury stations the actor-singers in curved patterns, keeping them still (like the “immovable” Earth whose centrality to the universe Galileo denied) so that each movement away from the curve is a radical act. The libretto, by playwright Zimmerman (Metamorphoses; The White Snake) with Glass and Arnold Weinstein, seems an exception but might be simply a larger loop: Its entire pattern moves backward in time, like Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, from ending to beginning, which are curiously connected.

And circularity, of course, is the touchstone of Glass’s music. Conductor Anne Manson, whose previous turns at Portland Opera have included brilliant work in 2009 on Glass’s Orphee and earlier this season on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, superbly leads a lean, 15-member orchestra, creating a splendid tension and coaxing surprising nuance from a score that includes some almost frisky variations from Glass’s familiar themes. In a couple of places, when the percussion section takes over, the orchestration surges into a jump-beat that suggests Latin jazz. The vocal lines, by contrast, are like straight-arrow stabs against the instrumental repetitions, yet with a good deal of melodic flexibility that underscores Glass’s thorough understanding of operatic and orchestral tradition.

Galileo’s story continues to have resonance not only because he used scientific observation to reveal a better understanding of how the universe works, but also because his findings so scandalized the keepers of the culture. The religious establishment, which was also the philosophical, economic and political establishment, responded to Galileo’s discoveries furiously, censoring his work and threatening him with prison or worse. To save his skin, he recanted, and who could blame him? But he didn’t forget.

“And yet it moves.”

Whether Galileo actually said that on his deathbed – it might be just a glorious urban legend – it has the ring of rightness.

Looking for Earth? Hint: It's not at the center – or anywhere here. Part
of the Tarantula Nebula, by the Hubble Heritage Team.

The brilliant astronomer and mathematician who had had the temerity to declare that the earth was not the stationary center of the universe, that in fact it rotated around the sun, had recanted only after the Church’s Inquisitors accused him of heresy. (He remained, I’m somehow pleased to learn, a man of faith, if not precisely the faith that the Inquisitors demanded.) Now, with his dying breath, he restates the obvious: you can deny a truth, but it’s still true.

I don’t know, either, whether Philip Glass had the terrorist attacks of September 11 on his mind when he wrote Galileo Galilei. I can’t find any evidence that he did, and I do know he’d long been interested in Galileo as a historical character, at least partly because Galileo’s father, the stellar lutenist Vincenzo Galilei, was in on the beginnings of the operatic art form.

So it’s probably a stretch to call Galileo Galilei “9/11 art.” Still, as I sat in the Newmark Theatre, I found myself thinking very much about the world the 9/11 attacks so violently reminded us we are living in. The parallels hit me partly because of the opera’s subject matter – a clash between reason and fanaticism, with the nature of faith battered between them – and partly because of the timing of its premiere, just months after the attacks.

The past decade, with its rise in global and American culture alike of combative fundamentalism (or, maybe more accurately, of opportunistic literalism) and the so-called civilized world’s shedding of the illusion that history is a march of progress, has reminded us that history is in fact circular, and that perhaps the best we can hope for as we loop ’round and ’round on the spokes, repeating the same mistakes in slightly altered fashion, is that the wheel itself might be headed in a more positive direction.

If it is, it’s progressing against mighty opposition. Rigid theocrats are on the ascent across the Islamic world. Women’s rights once taken for granted are suddenly under attack. Fear drives politics. And a significant chunk of the American electorate seems eager to adopt a new theocracy that, when confronted with compelling scientific evidence on any number of fronts, chooses to deny it in favor of literalist interpretations of the mythic metaphors of ancient desert tribes. The Inquisitors are unyielding, and they drive the conversation. Reason is the enemy. Faith takes no prisoners – a peculiarly narrow and reductive faith, unable or unwilling to adjust, as Galileo’s did, to the unfolding mysteries of a universe in flux.

And yet, the Earth moves.

I found Portland Opera’s production fascinating and engrossing, if a little uneven in the singing, and a true piece of integrated total theater. Among the cast I was particularly taken with tenor Richard Troxell, always clearly above the tone as Older Galileo, and by countertenor John Holiday as a cardinal and an oracle. I was impressed, as always, with Sue Bonde’s clean and intelligent costume design, and also with Don Crossley’s golden-luminous lighting. This production, as PO’s production of Glass’s Orphee was, is being recorded and will be released on CD later this year. I’ll be eager to hear how it sounds on its own: Several days after seeing it, the production and the music are still fused in my mind.

Glass’s critics sometimes complain that the hypnotic repetitions of his music encourage listeners’ minds to wander. They’re right. But there’s attentive wandering and inattentive wandering, and when things work the way I suspect Glass wants them to, the “checkout” stretches of an opera like Galileo Galilei are more like resonant doorways into parallel paths of contemplation. The music works on a subterranean level, freeing the receptive mind to explore fresh possibilities. That sort of openness to discovery, the kind of path that Galileo followed, is precisely what makes literalists nervous: If another idea becomes possible, what happens to what they believe? So the battle is joined: repress it, suppress it, stuff it back in the box.

To protect itself from the fanatics, the world recants. But not really. Because facts are facts, elasticity beats rigidity, and things do circle around. You can hear it, if you listen, in the music.

And so at the end (or the beginning), as he’s dying, Galileo utters: “And yet it moves.”

He’s stealing back to his same old used to be.



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