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Music of the Stars

New York
Brooklyn Academy of Music
11/18/2009 -  & November 20, 21*, 2009
Philip Glass: Kepler (libretto by Martina Winkel) for New Wave Festival 2009

Martin Achrainer (Kepler), Sadie Rosales (Soprano 1), Cheryl Lichter (Sorpano 2), Katerine Hebelkova (Mezzo), Seho Chang (Baritone), Florin Spiess (Bass)
Soloists and Choir of the Upper Austrian State Theatre, Linz, Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Dennis Russell Davies (Conductor)
Klaus Peter Kehr, Felix Losert (Dramaturgy), Karel van Laere (Costumes)

(© Jack Vartoogian)

“Pythagoras alone has seen beauty bare,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay, but she was wrong. Johannes Kepler, the tormented genius who lived a few years before Sir Isaac Newton but rivaled him in vision, found “music bare” in numbers and equations. Before Newton’s theses solved the mysteries of planetary movements, Kepler saw “celestial music” in the heavens, while worshiping God below.

One would have thought Kepler would be a fitting subject for an opera by Hindemith or Pfitzner. Philip Glass, though, whose 23 opera subjects span the world of the mystic, the scientific, the political and the links between them, has fashioned a two-hour opera that is musically overwhelming, if operatically suspect.

The New York Times rightly pointed out at its American premiere last Thursday, that Kepler is more oratorio than opera. But oratorios were partly composed as a financial necessity by businessman Handel, since Oliver Cromwell had banned operas on moral grounds. So the relationship between the two forms is that of genetic siblings rather than different art forms.

But yes, the staging in front of a large screen (showing clouds or geological formations) is minimal. The choir walks behind the orchestra or walks off the stage. The quintet of soloists walks in front of the orchestra or offstage. The character of Kepler walks around (in actual robes rather than black, like the others) comes on stage or goes off.

No, this is hardly operatic material (though some operas are almost as static!). So setting aside the genetic nomenclature, Philip Glass and his librettist, Martina Winkler, have set other challenges for the audience.

Since the opera was commissioned partly by the Upper Austrian State Theatre (who sent their chorus and soloists for this performance), the languages were German and Latin, taking most of the quotes from Kepler himself. (Kepler wrote much about himself in the third person, so this adds to the illusion that we have a dramatic discourse.)

Nor is anything contiguous here. Those expecting a biography of sorts were amongst the two-dozen-odd folk who walked out. Those of us who listened without prejudice were given a literarily disjointed series of set-pieces exploring Kepler as man, explorer, theist, scientist, astrologer and above all, Kepler the Loner, laboring through the horrors of the Thirty Year War, fundamentalists, and colleagues who he confessed to alienating.

“He,” sings Kepler about himself “is a dog that bites.”

If this was confusing, though, we had–above all–some of Glass’s most important operatic music. And I can not imagine anyone not moved by the gorgeous choral pieces. Mr. Glass, who usually shuns pure crescendos in his operas, here had no hesitation in using his chorus to raise the glory of God in Handelian volume. It could also chatter away in the Latin, as in the chorus for “vanity of vanities” (”Vanitas vanitatum” resembled the chattering chorus of the Balinese “Monkey Dance”).

The character of Kepler is almost sublimated by the choirs, but Glass took the ultimate challenge and made it work. Kepler, for instance, sung about equations, ellipses, planets, hypotheses and the scientific method. A gorgeous aria, a highly improbably aria!

The orchestra was pure Glass. Repetitions, syncopations, the trombone consort underlining the important motifs, and far more percussion than usual. But if the Glass music was unmistakable to hear, it was still obviously inspired, awesome at times, and filling the Brooklyn Academy with choruses that resounded to the rooftops.

While this was an ensemble effort–and, having premiered the work this August in Austria, they manifestly knew what they were doing–two names stand out. First, Sadie Rosales, who took over the taxing role of Soprano 1, with a few hours notice, and sung it beautifully. And conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who seems to be (in Shakespeare’s phrase), Glass’s “onlie true begetter”.

Mr. Davies has introduced many Glass works to the world. Watching him work here, the model of precise, intelligent accurate conducting, Mr. Davies revealed all the Glass revelations, balancing exactitude and enthusiasm in equal measures.

Harry Rolnick



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