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Opera review: Philip Glass' 'Kepler' has U.S. premiere at BAM

November 19, 2009 |  3:45 pm
Kepler(c)JackVartoogian1

The starry sky is regular subject, spiritual circumstance or actual setting of Philip Glass’ work. His latest opera, “Kepler,” given its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Wednesday night, is about the German astronomer who identified the elliptical orbits of our solar system. The composer couldn’t have been more at home.

Among Glass’ 23 operas are “Galileo Galilei” and two others based on Nobel laureate Doris Lessing's “Canopus in Argos” series of science-fiction novels. “The Voyage” opens with Stephen Hawking meditating on space-time and an alien spaceship crashing onto Earth; it ends with Columbus taking his final journey on his deathbed into outer space.

Astronauts in space ships, nebbishes having out-of-body experiences, pensive mystics pondering unknown realms, an ancient Egyptian king becoming one with the sun -- these are situations enhanced by Glass’ repetitive melodies, moody harmonies and propulsive rhythms.

But in “Kepler,” Glass’ yin-yang style gains new advances. More than ever before, the same kind of music can express going somewhere or nowhere, a physical or spiritual state, a secular and sacred condition.

The new opera was a commission of the Upper Austrian State Theatre in Linz, the city in Austria where Johannes Kepler did some of his most important work. This year’s European Culture Capital, Linz is also a Glass town. Dennis Russell Davies, the American conductor who is Glass’ most significant champion, is music director of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, which also serves as the opera company’s orchestra.

“Kepler” had its premiere in September, fully staged. But like all arts organizations in New York, BAM is not flush and could do no more than sponsor what was essentially a concert performance as part of the Bruckner Orchestra’s U.S. tour, which was limited to the East Coast.

Something may have been lost in doing so, but the opera is oratorio-like and may well have gained musically from having the orchestra on stage. Kepler is the sole character. Six soloists sing in a variety of combinations, and the chorus functions abstractly by setting the scene and commenting on the action.

Kepler(c)JackVartoogian3 Martina Winkel's libretto in German and Latin is a biography of the mind and has the weighty, fragmented, academic qualities many German and Austrian composers favor. As Kepler’s theory unfolds, he struggles with geometry, physics, superstition and religion at a time, during the Thirty Years' War, when these subjects weren’t clearly separated. The astronomer’s task is to appreciate God through the understanding of his clockwork universe rather than take the Bible literally. Winkel relies on Kepler’s words, but she also adds some lines from a Kepler contemporary, the poet Andreas Gryphius, on the plight of Europe in wartime.

We learn little about the protagonist himself, but enough to startle. Intolerant of fools, he calls himself a nasty little dog who bites. But ultimately this mutt becomes the first to give real meaning to the notion of the harmony of the spheres.

Glass always sets out on his musical journeys from the same place, and his score begins familiarly, with his trademark musical figures. But where he winds up is another story. “Kepler” is his most chromatic, complex, psychological score. The orchestra dominates, and the Linz Brucknerians proved focused, serious and compelling. I was struck by the muted, glowing colors, the character of many orchestral solos and the poignant emphasis on bass instruments. Davies made everything sound.

Glass' vocal lines offer a different kind of eloquence. Kepler’s dry descriptions of geographical shapes or his sudden revelations of inner turmoil were weirdly, equally moving.  Baritone Martin Achrainer was an expressive, authoritative Kepler; the six soloists were strong, and the chorus was commanding.  

I sense, on the American opera scene, a ho-hum attitude to Glass, based on the assumption that he always does the same thing. Most important companies have by now done one or maybe two (though, L.A., none) of his operas. The older works are favored over the new. Nothing is planned anywhere in the U.S. at the moment. Critics don’t go out of their way to keep up.

Europe pays more attention. Linz is a town of 200,000, and its performances of “Kepler” (which runs through early January) serve as a tourist attraction and sell out. Linz knows what we don’t – that Glass, following Kepler's lead, understands that there really may be a music of the spheres. “Kepler” is a wise, major opera.

-- Mark Swed

Photos: (top) Dennis Russell Davies conducting the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass' "Kepler" at BAM Wednesday night in New York.  (bottom)  Baritone Martin Achrainer as Kepler. Credit: Jack Vartoogian / BAM

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