Eugene Perry as young Galileo shows off his telescope toSarah Shepherd, Mary Wilson, and Alicia Berneche(Photo:  Liz Lauren)
Eugene Perry as young Galileo shows off his telescope to
Sarah Shepherd, Mary Wilson, and Alicia Berneche
(Photo: Liz Lauren)
Those familiar with the work of director and author Mary Zimmerman know that her creations are beautiful to behold. As many of her shows have toured from their Chicago points of origin, Zimmerman had a wide audience on both coasts even before winning a 2002 Tony Award for her direction of Metamorphoses. Whether staged simply with a few oriental rugs (The Arabian Nights) or with lavish scenery and costumes (Journey to the West), Zimmerman's work strikes a harmonious balance of color, movement, music, spoken word, dance and design, drawing on a wide range of Western, Middle Eastern and Asian classical sources. Her latest effort, Galileo Galilei, is a 90-minute opera written with composer Philip Glass (with libretto assistance from Arnold Weinstein), now having its world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Visually, Galileo Galilei is the true Zimmerman goods. Her usual design team, aided by John Boesche's projections, creates a characteristic classical world encompassing everything from the surface of the moon to--chiefly--the palazzos and gardens of 17th century Italy. Drawing directly from famed Renaissance architecht Andrea Palladio, Daniel Ostling provides a pair of towering facades that frame the marbelized, raked stage, offering three stories of arcaded walks and pediment windows. T.J. Gerckens's lighting moves from the heat of summer to the cold gleam of winter. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes, in true Renaissance fashion, are sumptuous but with simple lines. Each of the work's 10 scenes creates a different mood through changing set pieces, projections, or simple drapery. No visual is repeated as the action moves seamlessly from location to location, including a nunnery wall, the Cardinal's orangerie, Galileo's study, and a Medici palace. Key portions of text are projected not as opera's usual surtitles, but written in script as part of the scenery itself.

Against this handsome backdrop, Zimmerman and Glass relate Galileo's life story backwards, moving from his blind old age to his recantation of his discovery that the earth moves around the sun to his studies of gravity to his invention of the telescope, and so on back to his boyhood, where he attends a court performance of an early opera composed by his father.

Lost in the stars...
John Duykers as old Galileo
(Photo: Liz Lauren)
Lost in the stars...
John Duykers as old Galileo
(Photo: Liz Lauren)
Individual scenes are potent, such as the moving visit by Galileo to his cloistered daughter Maria Celeste, who supplies him with pears and spiritual strength at a time of testing; or the charming scene in which a gondola is used to visualize the metaphor by which Galileo explains his discoveries. But just as many scenes are flat and predictable, among them scenes of the Inquisition and Galileo's meeting with Cardinal Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII.

Galileo Galilei is anecdotal and episodic, beautiful to behold but never achieving critical mass in an emotional sense. Surprisingly neutral, the work fails to explore Galileo's motivations; indeed, its creators don't seem to have been interested in doing so. An opera could not, of course, fully explain this man's genius any more than Amadeus can account for Mozart's; but Galileo Galilei strands its subject without a personality--heroic or otherwise--only a history.

Musically, Glass's score is far more accessible than his last work seen in Chicago, The Penal Colony (co-authored with director JoAnne Akalaitis). Both music and text are less abstract; but then, Glass and Zimmerman were not adapting Kafka. Scored for 11 pieces including string, woodwind and brass trios, plus percussion and keyboards, the music features Glass's signature hypnotic pulsing and repetitive instrumental lines with contrapuntal staccato punctuation. Above the orchestra, the composer spins a wealth of broad vocal lines for Galileo (chiefly sung by tenor John Duykers, but also by baritone Eugene Perry as the younger Galileo) and Maria Celeste (mezzo Alicia Berneche, whose role include some sensuous musical figures reminiscent of Villa-Lobos), the Pope (basso Andrew Funk), and a trio of cardinals (baritone, tenor and countertenor). Glass offers lollipops, too, including an instrumental tango in the sixth scene and a waltz anthem as the principal choral interlude.

Galileo Galilei runs here through August 4, then is bound for the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in October, and London's Barbican International Theatre Events (BITE) in November.