Angela Allen

Hats off, including those floppy Renaissance berets, to Portland Opera for setting its first 21st-Century opera. A West Coast premiere, Philip Glass’s chamber opera, Galileo, appropriately was staged at the 880-seat Newmark Theatre, an intimate venue compared to PO’s usual place, the sprawling 2,992-seat Keller Auditorium.

Based on the life of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was dragged through the Inquisition for his assertion that the earth moved, not the sun, the opera debuted in 2002 in Chicago. Glass, Arnold Weinstein and the marvelous Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses) wrote the libretto.

So Galileo has excellent bones. If you haven’t experienced a Glass opera – this was his 18th — now’s the time. At 75 years old, Glass continues to be a major force in American music, whether you love or hate his work. Glass doesn’t like the minimalist label; rather, he says his music is defined by “repetitive structures.” As well, harmony and counterpoint are part of the classical scaffolding that upholds his music. Galileo has less repetition than many of his other pieces. Though often dreamlike, the music is lyrical, and yes, more accessible, to traditional opera ears.

Anne Manson, who directed Glass’s 2009 Orphee for PO, does a lively, sensitive job of integrating singing (and sounds) with music written for 15 instrumentalists. There was refreshing input from percussionists Brian Gardiner and Robert Ainsley (who doubles as the assistant conductor and trained singers on this anything-but-Eurocentric piece. Oh, and Ainsley plays the celeste, a piano-like instrument, in the opera. Talk about a Renaissance guy).

The opera lasts 90 minutes and its 10 scenes, performed without pause, are tightly knit as it covers almost 80 years. It opens with Galileo as a blind old man (sung by tenor Richard Troxell, the only singer to have one role). It ends with 6-year-old Bix Miller Brotherton who plays Galileo as a little boy, entranced, watching an opera by his opera-making-father, another Galileo. And there’s a touching ending, which I won’t give away.

So the opera comes full circle, not only portraying Galileo’s life and strife, but embracing the pillars of the Renaissance: science, art, and religion. The set, ballasted by overhead rings that conjure up a solar system, helps to project this metaphor. So much unity pervades this piece, allowing the metaphor to work in many ways: the staging, the music, the props.

Five of the nine singers are among Portland Opera Studio Artists (apprentices). They juggled 17 roles gingerly, at least opening night. There was no room, nor role in this opera, for a diva.

Their voices were striking (and you have to notice John Holiday’s rare counter tenor) and their acting energetic. And they were nimble quick-change artists. Without an intermission or scene changes, each had to change from one role to another within seconds, sometimes. In soprano Lindsay Ohse’s case, she morphed from nun to noble lady in her roles. Plus, Sue Bond’s period velvet-rich costumes are elaborate. Galileo lived from 1565 to 1642, and he, the church, and patron saints didn’t dress shabbily.

Galileo, the man, is played by three different characters, though the very young Galileo (Brotherton) doesn’t sing. But Troxell, the old Galileo, and Andre Chiang who plays him as the younger scientist (Chiang is an up-and-coming baritone who sang the Prince in this season of PO’s Madama Butterfly), made Galileo come alive at various ages and stages of life.

Thanks in part to the elegant theatrical lighting, and all of the above, the opera is far from a boring biography of a scientist.

Expect a recording at the end of the year. PO’s recording of Orphee in 2009 was voted “Ten Best of the Year” by Opera News. This recording will be better.