At the beginning and the end, Galileo turns in the center of his own universe.
Madison Opera's newest production, Philip Glass' "Galileo Galilei," opens with a striking image. The inventor and visionary stands barefoot and blind, an artistic rendering of the heavens swirling behind, above and below him.
Galileo sings to his deceased daughter ("Last night, I dreamt I knelt on the moon, reaching for your hand"). As he concludes his aria, the stars seem to fall like snow, coalescing to the point where Galileo stands.
This first scene sets the tone for A. Scott Parry's beautifully illustrated production of "Galileo Galilei," running in the Playhouse through Sunday, Jan. 29.
Created in 2002 by composer Glass, playwright/director Mary Zimmerman and poet Arnold Weinstein, "Galileo" is less a story than a series of dramatic images inspired by Galileo's life.
As the scenes move backward in time, Galileo, played with sensitivity and clarity by tenor William Joyner, recants before Pope Urban VIII (an aptly threatening Dean Peterson). Cardinals circle him in concentric planetary rings, and Galileo repeats again and again his famous heresy: the earth revolves; the sun does not.
In a vision that turns stormy, Galileo's daughter Maria Celeste (Jamie-Rose Guarrine) encourages him to bear up through the accusations. Then, after a clever "argument" scene drawn from Galileo's 1632 "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World," the expressive young baritone John Arnold assumes the role of Galileo.
Glass' music is textural rather than melodic. Arias sound more like recitative, or operatic dialogue. Constantly in the score, two- and four-note ostinatos (rhythmic patterns) roll in waves. From scene to scene, the repetition feels like a connecting thread, a spool unwinding.
"Galileo" may not contain memorable melodies. But the orchestra (conducted by Kelly Kuo) conveys intense foreboding in scenes with the inquisitors, transforming into a gleeful calliope of discovery as young Galileo explains a theory.
The most poignant scene comes midway through, when then-Cardinal Barberini and Galileo walk through the Cardinal's gardens. One can see the hope and eagerness in Arnold's face.
But the Cardinal's words are hollow, despite the "dangerous adulation" he reveals in a poem. He is a politician at heart, bound to suppress his own ideas for the will of the church.
The cast, deftly choreographed by Parry, is quite strong, notably Saira Frank as a preening duchess and Errik M. Hood as priest. Only one bit of casting feels false — the age gap between Jennifer DeMain as young Maria Celeste and Arnold as her father appears to be about four years. (It's actually closer to 10, but the effect is odd).
This is Madison Opera's first Glass production, and it's a truly accessible choice. It runs less than 90 minutes, and is sung in English. There are supertitles, but the performers' diction is so clear, they're nearly superfluous.
Sumptuous period costumes, designed by Karen Brown-Larimore, and Barry Steele's evocative, video-enhanced set make "Galileo" beautiful to look at. And in Parry's hands, Galileo's story has depth and resonance, even though we already know the ending.
Overture Center Playhouse, 201 State St.
Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 29, 2:30 p.m. Note: Tickets are limited; patrons are encouraged to call the box office to check last-minute availability.
overturecenter.com/production/galileo; box office, 258-4141