Glass: Galileo Galilei

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Glass
LABELS: Orange Mountain Music
ALBUM TITLE: Glass: Galileo Galilei
WORKS: Galileo Galilei
PERFORMER: Richard Troxell, Lindsay Ohse, Andre Chiang, Nicholas Nelson, John Holiday, Matthew Hayward, José Rubio, Anne McKee Reed, Caitlin Mathes, Bix Brotherton; Portland Opera & Orchestra/Anne Manson
CATALOGUE NO: OMM 0091

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Philip Glass has always been fascinated by people who radically challenged the beliefs of their time: his early operas examined the contributions of Gandhi, Einstein and Akhnaten. More recently he tackled Kepler. And back in 2002 he turned to Galileo Galilei; this is the first recording of that opera.

The libretto, drawn from Galileo family letters and various other documents, clearly presents the scientific, philosophical and religious issues while evoking the characters’ personal struggles and emotions. The story begins with Galileo in old age, now blind, in the aftermath of his trial for heresy, and takes us back to his early childhood, when we find him watching an opera composed by his father, Vincenzo, a lutenist and composer.

We are launched straight into the action as, in a moving aria sung by Richard Troxell, Galileo remembers a dream in which he knelt on the Moon. Troxell’s lambent tenor quickly establishes the listener’s empathy with the old man, placed under house arrest and forced to recant his explanation of the solar system by the Inquisition. The younger Galileo is sung equally well as a baritone by André Chiang. It’s also worth spotlighting the countertenor John Holiday for his remarkable performance in the small but memorable role of Cardinal I and Oracle I. The diction of all the singers is very clear, making it easy to follow the plot.

Glass provides singers and orchestra with some of his most tuneful writing, while retaining his characteristic rhythmic patterns and nervy momentum, and there are some superb blendings of textures. He uses a small orchestra but still gets a full-bodied sound, and the instrumentalists play with precision and affective authority.

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Barry Witherden