Mary Zimmerman and Phillip Glass collaborate

Mary Zimmerman and Phillip Glass collaborate

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

Mary Zimmerman and Phillip Glass combine their talents to bring to the stage a world premiere of Glass’s latest major work at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Zimmerman’s genius and creativity was acknowledged on Broadway with a Tony for her direction of Metamorphoses, and Glass’ innovative compositions produce a work of magic. Based on the scientific controversy of Galileo’s thesis of the movement of the planets around the sun and his inquisition, it would seem to be a rather dull subject, but every aspect of the work from Glass’ score to Zimmerman’s staging make Galileo Galilei an incomparable theater piece.

The opera begins at the end of Galileo’s life when, blind and living a lonely existence, he sits by the telescope that brought the solar system to man. John Duykers is the Older Galileo, fragile and steeped in his memories. The massive set of medieval Italy overpowers, but the music reinforces depth of character. Moving back to the past, we encounter those significant to Galileo’s life: his daughter, Marie Celeste (Alicia Berneche), Pope Urban VII (Andrew Funk) and the Cardinal Inquisitors. Reversing the timeline is just one of the devices that make Galileo Galilei so intriguing.

Zimmerman’s work, long recognized in Chicago, is receiving accolades worldwide. Only 10 years ago, she joined with a group of college friends to form the Lookingglass Theatre Company, and in a comparatively brief time, their productions, staged in small venues throughout the city, have received rave reviews. Based on obscure works and the classics, they range from Baron in the Trees to Homer’s The Odyssey, produced at the Goodman. The story set in ancient Greece saw the ships of Odysseus’ fleet as miniatures sailing across a silken sea. Many of the same ideas are seen in Galileo. The towers and cathedrals of Venice, tiny as if seen in the distance, back the gondola moving slowly across the stage as Salviati, Sagredo and Simplicio debate whether the earth moves.

Not a scholar of classical music, my comments on the score can only be those of an appreciative listener. A preconception of modern music included the idea of dissonance. Glass has created an opera pleasant to the ear and completely appropriate to Zimmerman’s libretto. The Lyric Opera’s production of Romeo and Juliet cast a countertenor as Romeo. The high-pitched girlish voice was disconcerting, and the Cardinal Inquisitor, Oracle, Mark Crayton, also a countertenor, seemed inconsistent.

Eugene Perry plays the Younger Galileo and Zach Grey the Child. In the final scene, the boy watches his father’s opera, a celestial tale of Orion and Merope. The solar system, represented by humans, obviously piques the child’s imagination, and we perceive his future.

Galileo Galilei closes the 2002-2002 season at the Goodman. Performances continue through Aug. 4, and tickets range from $35 to $50. The production runs 90 minutes with no interruption, a seamless fantasy—highly recommended.

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